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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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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. 

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