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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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Photo of Egyptian protesters attacking the Israeli embassy in Cairo

Protesters attack a wall surrounding the Israeli embassy in Cairo.


 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.” 

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