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The People, No

Egypt’s populist problem.

Oct 3, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 03 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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Cairo

Photo of Egyptian protesters attacking the Israeli embassy in Cairo

Protesters attack a wall surrounding the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Newscom

 On September 9, a mob of Egyptian protesters stormed the Israeli embassy here, necessitating the emergency evacuation of the ambassador, most of his staff, and their families. The attack represents a significant downturn in relations between Egypt and the Jewish state, a relationship that was bound to get more complicated when President Hosni Mubarak—steadfast American ally and mainstay of a three-decade cold peace with Israel—stepped down on February 11 in response to massive protests and pressure from the military. 

The military rulers who succeeded Mubarak would not pick up the phone calls of frantic Israeli officials until President Barack Obama—at the urgent request of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu—intervened. This matters because it is the army—recipient of more than $1 billion in annual American aid, overseer of the country, upholder of the Camp David accords—whose interests, at least according to conventional wisdom, require it to prevent conflict with Israel. 

I received a foretaste of the attacks in late August, when I attended a protest at the Israeli embassy. The demonstration was ostensibly a reaction to Israel’s counterterror raid in the Sinai Peninsula several days earlier, which had unintentionally left several Egyptian border guards dead. Two things struck me about the demonstration. The first was that the vast majority of the protesters were not Islamic extremists, but precisely the sort of young, middle-class, Twittering revolutionaries who had taken to Tahrir Square earlier in the year demanding liberal reforms. The “new” Egypt they want is one which seeks confrontation with Israel. The second thing that struck me was that there was no military presence outside the embassy. It was only a matter of time, I thought, before the embassy was besieged, as happened just two weeks later. 

Even if there is broad agreement in Egypt that the Camp David treaty should be amended, Egypt’s liberals and Islamists have competing visions for the future of their country, which will determine the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. But much of the groundwork for the post-Mubarak order has already been set, and the emerging picture is not reassuring to those wishing to see a secular, democratic, liberal Egypt at peace with its neighbors and itself. On a whole host of issues—from containing Iran to the advancement of liberal values in the Arab world, as well as peace with Israel—the situation in Egypt today is a far cry from the high expectations so many had invested in it after the revolution.

Essam el-Erian is the most charismatic man I’ve met in Egypt. A senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was imprisoned eight times by the Mubarak regime, Erian is the vice president of the Freedom and Justice party, the nominally independent faction running in the parliamentary elections as a Brotherhood front. Typically characterized as a “reformist,” Erian seems to fit the bill, telling me that “all Egyptians are invited now in building the country” and dispelling any notion I might have that Egypt will ever become a “clerical regime.” 

There are signs pointing to a massive Brotherhood electoral victory. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, when they were under significant repression, the Brotherhood’s candidates won a respectable 20 percent of the seats. Now that the organization is free to campaign, estimates that many liberals offer of a 20 to 25 percent Brotherhood share of the vote seem optimistically small. 

Reformist or otherwise, Erian and the group for which he speaks have a disquieting vision of the future, and his views on regional politics pose a defiant challenge to the American-led order. “The Iranian regime says all the time it wants nuclear knowledge for peaceful issues. And I trust this,” he tells me. When I say that other Arab governments have long warned about an Iranian nuclear weapons program, and that those concerns were seen most clearly in diplomatic cables released via WikiLeaks last year, he suggests that these were not authentic documents but forgeries orchestrated by “the West to isolate Iran.” As for Hamas, the State Department-listed terrorist organization is, according to Erian, “a resistance group fighting for freedom and liberation of their lands from occupation.” 

Some in America and Europe argue that the seed for the Arab Spring was planted with the Iraq war, which created the space for the first free elections in the Arab world. Erian agrees that Iraq played a role in Egypt’s revolution, but he sees it differently. “The failure of importing democracy in Iraq after the invasion and the millions killed by Americans and the torture of people in Abu Ghraib was a very big and strong message to the Arab world to revolt,” he told me, turning the premise of my question on its head. The ongoing revolts, while ostensibly directed at Arab leaders, he says, have really been pointed towards “the overwhelming strategy of America in the region.” When I ask him what that strategy is, he lists three tenets. “Support [for] dictatorships. Having oil at low prices. Supporting Israel.” 

The Brotherhood, long held up by Mubarak as the bogeyman that would rule the country should he be deposed, seems at first to have been taken by surprise by the uprising that toppled the former Egyptian president. Yet that has hardly stopped the organization from asserting itself, to the consternation of the liberals who believe, correctly, that they were the ones who brought down Mubarak. 

In late July, tens of thousands of Islamists held a demonstration in Tahrir Square calling for an Islamic state. It was the biggest protest by far since the initial ones in late January and early February. In addition to the Brotherhood, the other major faction in the square that day were Salafists, more overtly extreme Islamists who reject the Brotherhood’s preferred strategy of a patient and nonviolent approach to establishing a Muslim state. Salafists are not organized under one banner, though at least one official Salafist party, El Nour (“Light”), will be competing in the elections. They will cooperate with the Brotherhood in parliament, adding to the Islamists’ collective electoral strength. 

“The traditional thinking in the Muslim Brotherhood is close to being a more conservative state, not like the Iranian model but not also a model like Turkey, something in between,” Abou Elela Mady, a former Brotherhood member who is now leader of the relatively moderate Islamist El Wasat (“Center”) party, told me. 

Mady left the Brotherhood 17 years ago because he disagreed with its “mixing” the “preaching job and political job.” This critique has become more pronounced in the wake of the Brotherhood’s formal entry into politics, with the most vocal, internal critics found amongst its youth wing. They speak of a group that polices its ranks in a highly authoritarian manner, which doesn’t bode well for how it might govern the country. Mohamed el-Kassas is another critic. A thirtysomething businessman who joined the Brotherhood as a college student, he was expelled from the organization earlier this year after he advocated that members be allowed to join political parties other than the Brotherhood’s front group. Kassas is now trying to form his own party, which would keep religion and politics separate. Like many, he praises Turkey as an example of the sort of Muslim democracy Egypt might become. “I believe in a civil state, secular democracy, modernization. But at the end,” he says, “you have to remember that we respect religion.”

While the Brotherhood’s quest for power has disappointed some of its members, it’s unlikely to play any significant role in weakening the organization as a force in Egyptian politics. After all, political power is what it has always sought. It’s doubtful that the number of members who have left the organization in frustration over its hegemonic intentions is significant. And whatever numbers the Brotherhood has lost as a result of its aggressive politicking, it has more than made up for them through the establishment of the National Democratic Alliance for Egypt, an electoral coalition of over 30 parties, including one of the most prominent liberal parties in the country, El Ghad. 

That El Ghad (“Tomorrow”) has entered into an alliance with the Brotherhood will probably discomfit some of the Western observers who have long admired its leader, Ayman Nour, a former member of the Egyptian parliament who challenged Mubarak for the presidency in 2005 and whose subsequent imprisonment made him a cause célèbre. But Nour has always been a skilled political operator, and sees his electoral fortunes as being boosted by riding the coattails of the Brotherhood. 

I met with Nour in his elegant, wood-paneled office, which sits above the popular Groppi café and patisserie in downtown Cairo. A large man with jet-black hair and an infectious smile, he sits behind a big wooden desk. It is late in the evening, and political office hours are being extended because of the daylong Ramadan fast. A line of people are waiting to see him in the lobby of his office; the whole affair has the whiff of the ward-heeling, local party boss. 

When I ask Nour what is the biggest problem facing Egypt, he laughs. “What problem isn’t facing Egypt?” Like most of the secular political leaders in the country, he’s light on the details of economic policy, and his rhetoric heads in a populist direction. He believes in “free markets” but also that the “government should take the side of poor people.” One way to boost the economy, he says, would be to increase tourism from Iran. Egypt has not had relations with the Islamic Republic since 1979 when its revolutionary government cut ties to protest Cairo’s recognition of Israel. While wariness towards Iran’s Shiite clerical regime is widespread in Egypt, the end of the Mubarak era has already seen a shift in Egyptian foreign policy. Perhaps most significantly, Cairo brokered a reconciliation deal between the rival Palestinian factions, emboldening the Iranian-backed Hamas. In March, the Egyptian foreign minister met in Cairo with Iran’s chargé d’affairs, pledging to open a “new page” with the Islamic Republic. 

Nour tells me that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has twice invited him to visit Iran since the revolution, but that he has declined both invitations, “not only because I’m busy now but because I believe there are steps in relations.” Nour is well aware of the good reputation he has in the West and would not want to risk being portrayed as an Iranian stooge. Nonetheless, he is a sharp critic of American Middle East policy. From his perspective, Washington, however well-intentioned, has perpetually made the wrong decisions by backing autocratic governments in the Arab world. “If the Americans from the very beginning took the path of justice, they wouldn’t need to pay all this money in Iraq, because they didn’t choose the principles,” he says. 

A press conference in August announcing the formation of the “Egyptian Bloc,” an alliance of 15 secular parties, ranging from liberal to socialist to union groups, underscored a fundamental problem with the secularists and liberals—they are too dispersed. On the surface, the explosion of political parties since the liberalization of the country’s electoral law has been a positive step; but it has also exposed the fissures and narcissism of Egypt’s liberals. Many secularists wave off this concern. “It is impossible to have a smaller number [of parties] after a revolution,” Ehab El Kharrat of the Social Democrats assures me. “The Spanish had 140 parties after the fall of Franco.” That may be the case, but while there are a wide variety of options through which non-Islamist Egyptians can dilute their electoral power, Islamists will mostly be voting for one party: Freedom and Justice.

It has been said that Egypt is a “military with a country.” Through vast land holdings and ownership stakes in private industries, the army is believed to control, formally and informally, some 40 percent of the economy, extending everywhere from agricultural production to kitchen appliances. The military’s primary concern right now is to preserve its station in Egypt. In order to do so, it must remain committed to upholding a widely disliked peace treaty, which renders its widespread popularity something of a paradox.

The respect that most Egyptians hold for the military is predicated upon the heroic narrative constructed around it, namely, the myth of the 1973 defeat of Israel. However, since taking power earlier this year, the army has arrested and tried over 12,000 people in military tribunals, more than the number of civilians put before military courts throughout the whole 30-year period of Mubarak’s rule. Still, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the country’s de facto ruler as chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has a 45 percent favorability rating among Egyptians—higher than the 38 percent registered for the April 6 Youth Movement (which led the anti-Mubarak protests) or the 37 percent for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Rumors regarding a behind-the-scenes deal between the Brotherhood and the military abound in Cairo, premised mostly on the fact that both supported a March constitutional referendum that called for an accelerated election schedule. Such a prospect is not inconceivable. The idea is that the military will cede domestic politics to the Brotherhood, which will in turn allow the generals to maintain control over foreign affairs and their vast economic assets.

The reality is that the military has already softened in its approach to the Islamists whom it once portrayed as threatening Egyptian stability. Since February, the army has gradually released over 100 Islamist prisoners. Many of these men are members of the Salafist organization al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya (“the Islamic Group”), believed to have played an ancillary role in former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s 1981 assassination, and responsible for over 1,000 terrorist attacks in the 1990s, including an attempt on Mubarak’s life. Some 25,000 of its members were imprisoned during the Mubarak era. While the release of Islamists from prison may appear to represent some sort of modus vivendi between the military and religious extremists, it is merely a continuation of a policy adopted during the late Mubarak years, when thousands of Islamist prisoners were sprung from jail provided they renounce violence. 

Nageh Ibrahim was a founding member of al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya, and was sentenced to jail in 1984 for his role in the Sadat assassination. A dermatologist by training, he has written over two dozen books about religion. While in prison, he was one of the leading figures to argue that the group should adopt nonviolence as a strategy. The gambit worked, and in 2003, the Egyptian government released 900 of its members from jail. In 2006, after serving more than two decades in prison, Ibrahim walked free. 

Today, Ibrahim lives in the ancient city of Alexandria, about a five-hour drive north of Cairo on the Mediterranean. I met with him in the living room of his high-rise apartment, where he reiterated his organization’s denunciation of violence. 

“Killing civilians is haram (illegal),” he says. “Killing children haram, killing women haram, killing civilians haram,” he adds for emphasis. He cites the seventh-century Medina Charter, the constitution drafted by Muhammad that granted rights to non-Muslims, as an example of Islam’s tolerant foundations. He even goes so far as to say that religious minorities would have more freedom in a proper Islamic state than they do in secular ones. “Secularism gives one law that everyone should obey,” he says, whereas “Islam is more flexible” in making allowances for various religious practices that liberal societies might proscribe. There should be “no compulsion in religion,” he says, and no woman should be forced to wear the hijab. But he doesn’t think Christians (who represent about 10 percent of the population) should be allowed to become president of Egypt. When I press him on this, he responds politely, “In France, have you ever heard of a Muslim ruling, or in Britain a Muslim ruling? Even in the United States, no Catholic ruled except Kennedy, and he was killed.”

Putting aside his peculiar interpretation of the Kennedy assassination, Ibrahim offered, to my surprise, some of the most reasonable words about Egypt’s relationship with Israel. “Some left-wingers and socialists and Nasserites say all the problems we have now are because of Camp David,” he said. “This is totally wrong. For example, Israel signed Camp David and that caused progress in the industry and science fields. Our collapsing is not because of Camp David. It’s because of dictatorship, which was before and after Camp David.” As this is an Islamist talking, it’s unclear whether he’s sincere or has tailored his position to what he thinks an American journalist wants to hear. But it was certainly more reasonable than what the secular youth trying to destroy the wall outside the Israeli embassy were shouting. 

It is to be expected that in a post-revolutionary atmosphere political factions will make appeals to “the people,” a phrase I hear from the mouths of Islamists and liberals alike.

One of the more heartening aspects of the debate in Egypt is that political leaders, at least in theory, are trying to speak to the nation as a whole, not to narrow constituencies. The secular parties go out of their way to express their respect for Islam, and stress that they have no intention of removing it from the public and cultural life of Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ostensible moderation suggests they recognize that many Egyptians are wary of their project and are therefore engaging in the sort of compromise that political parties in all mature democracies must undertake.

But there’s a negative side to this constant rhetoric of “the people,” which is that deference to popular will can lead to mob rule. Some participants in the storming of the Israeli embassy, according to a recent Voice of America story, contended that the “security forces in front of the embassy should not have intervened to protect it, because it is the people’s will to tear down the wall.” That is, for a government truly to be “governing in the name of the people,” it must do whatever “the people” requires of it. This is so if it means answering to the demands of a violent mob and contravening international law stipulating that it is the Egyptian government’s duty to protect the sovereign Israeli territory that is the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Few Egyptians seem seriously to advocate war against the Jewish state. For its part, the Freedom and Justice party condemned the attacks on the embassy, stressing that Egyptians “must learn to differentiate between condemning Israeli actions and destroying property and attacking security forces.” But what if a nonviolent majority of the Egyptian people wants their government to end its diplomatic relations with Israel? There are other steps, far short of war, that Egypt can take to frustrate bilateral relations. In response to popular sentiment, Egypt could gradually reduce its security cooperation with Israel, leading the way to increased weapons smuggling to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Closer relations with Iran, right when Washington is trying to isolate Tehran, would seriously damage American interests across the region. 

Egyptians feel that theirs is a great nation whose full potential as a regional power has been repeatedly squandered by venal leaders. It is too soon to say what role post-Mubarak Egypt will play in the Middle East, but the events outside its neighbor’s embassy do not augur well. As any honest appraisal of the region will confirm, far worse outcomes have been borne of revolution.

James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, based in Prague.

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