Politics & Policy

Do the Protesters Want Democracy?

If one factor unites them, it is not Mubarak’s brutality but his cupidity.

Between Twitter, Facebook, and the 24/7 news cycle (which seems to have a built-in 18/7 opinion cycle), we in the U.S. can learn in real time what is happening on the ground thousands of miles away in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Alas, instant awareness does not translate into instant understanding.

Worse, the limited attention spans weaned on the news/opinion cycle demand that complex events be reduced to bumper stickers, reinforced by endlessly recycled video loops. So we’re told that “the people” in Egypt are revolting because they crave “democracy.” That, we are to understand, accounts for their determination to oust Pres. Hosni Mubarak, the despot who has ruled the country under tyrannical emergency powers for 30 years.

Egypt, however, is a complex country of 80 million. There is no “the people.” Though predominantly Islamic, the country is home to about 8 million non-Muslims, mostly Coptic Christians. Of the 70 million–plus Muslims, a very sizable segment is devout and fundamentalist. Indeed, in 2007, pollsters found that about half “strongly” supported implementation of “strict” sharia (Islamic law) — and even more were “somewhat” supportive. Nevertheless, millions of Egyptian Muslims are secularists who regard sharia as, at most, a matter of private ethics, not a roadmap for public policy. Of these, many are strongly pro-Western, but a goodly number are anti-Western Leftists of a Nasserite bent.

Most of the commentary, very much including conservative commentary, ignores this diversity. It assumes a monolithic Egypt — whatever monolith best serves the particular commentator’s policy preferences. When neoconservative enthusiasts of the Bush democracy project look at Egypt, they seem to see only the pro-Western secularists. Discounting profound cultural differences between Islam and the West, presuming instead that all people are essentially the same and have a common yearning for freedom, they marginalize Egyptians who do not fit the mold — as if these tens of millions were some unrepresentative fringe or the product of someone’s fevered imagination. On the other hand, many other conservatives, justifiably alarmed over the potential Muslim Brotherhood ascendancy, portray the Brothers as if they were ten feet tall — poised to roll effortlessly over secular Egyptians, hijack the armed forces, and begin bombing Tel Aviv by noon tomorrow.

Egypt is far more complicated than these competing visions, and others on offer, suggest. To begin with, not all of Egypt is rebelling, and not all of those protesting in the streets are protesting for the same reasons. Some actually support Mubarak. That should come as no surprise: One doesn’t hang on as an authoritarian ruler for 30 years without cultivating the right elements of society. Life, however, could get considerably less comfortable for the pro-regime elements if their patron is gone, so they want him to stick around — even at 82 and in failing health.

The anti-Mubarak opposition encompasses a majority of the country, but it is a mixed bag. If there is one uniting factor, it is not Mubarak’s brutality but his cupidity. He and his family seem to have socked away a fortune larger than Egypt’s public debt, making them billionaires 40 times over. A number of Mubarak cronies are now billionaires, too, having skimmed off the regime’s hammer-lock on industry — and this, in a country with rampant poverty, real unemployment at over 20 percent, and many working Egyptians surviving on only a few hundred dollars a year.

Concern over Mubarak’s iron fist is what most animates the Western press, which takes its cues from progressive intellectuals and self-styled human-rights crusaders. Among Egyptians, though, dissent over Mubarak’s brutality against Islamists and suppression of political opposition pales beside revulsion over his financial corruption.

In fact, many Egyptians are not terribly upset about Mubarak’s police-state tactics. That doesn’t mean they approve of these practices in the abstract. It means they have a better memory than we apparently do of the jihadist atrocities that provoked and sustained the state of emergency. Moreover, because they are forced to grapple with the Islamist ideology that is all around them, they don’t buy the Western psychobabble about how Mubarak’s iron fist is the principal cause of Islamist rage. They remember that the Islamists were raging long before there was a Mubarak — and know that Islamist ideology will have them raging long after he’s gone.

Other Egyptians — those who seemed ready ten days ago to add the president’s brass-knuckle practices to the case for his ouster — are less sure about that now. Violence, looting, and jail-breaks will do that to you. Having stared into the abyss, the heady desire for “change” has, for these Egyptians, given way to the hard-headed question: Yes, we’d like Mubarak gone, but what replaces him?

That’s anything but clear, and calling for “democracy” in this environment is not clarifying. Secular, pro-Western Muslims and Copts would certainly favor something the West would recognize as democracy. Still, they are a minority and a disorganized one at that. The Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, are highly organized, but they are most certainly not the latter-day Madisons of Western media lore. The Ikhwan only talks a good democracy game. The Brothers will never walk the walk, because their agenda is sharia. Democratic processes are a serviceable route to power, but democratic principles would not guide their exercise of power.

Much is made, including by President Obama, of the fact that the Brotherhood is a minority faction, popular with perhaps a quarter of Egyptians. That, though, is a formidable plurality — the Bolsheviks probably had less popular support in 1917. To be effective, especially when things are in disarray, a faction doesn’t need to be a majority. It needs to be disciplined and better organized than its competition. Under one authoritarian regime after another for generations, most Egyptians have been busy just trying to get by. Game-planning a revolutionary reordering of society hasn’t been on their radar. But it has been the Brotherhood’s obsession since 1928. Moreover, the Brothers have been gradualists about their goals precisely because they believed it would be important, when their moment finally came, to be ready to hit the ground running.

They are ready. Even as a technically outlawed organization, the Brotherhood has become the leading opposition group in the assembly. If there is a quick transition, meaning popular elections and a new government, the Brotherhood is certain to improve its position. In all likelihood, it will not be a majority party, but it will have enough of a plurality to exercise enormous influence over the levers of power and perhaps to decide who wields them.

The new Egyptian government would be more Islamist, more anti-American, and more hostile to Israel. How much the tide would turn from Mubarak’s pro-Western tilt would depend on the military, the upper ranks of which will not want to return to a state of war with Israel, regardless of the Muslim Brotherhood’s desires and the unpopularity of Israel among the broader Egyptian population. As I’ve argued previously, while the military is the most stable institution in Egypt, we should be careful not to overrate its promise as a bulwark against the Islamist advance.

The question in Egypt is not what happens at noon tomorrow but what happens, incrementally, over the next several years. While some analysts look at Iran 1979 as their guide, mine is present-day Turkey.

There, by law, the military is the guarantor of Atatürk’s secular Muslim society. Like Egypt’s armed forces, Turkey’s military is highly professional — indeed, it is still (nominally) a NATO ally and until recently had strong ties to the Israeli defense forces. Yet now, after 80 years, Turkey is back in the Islamist fold and overtly hostile to Israel.

This did not happen overnight. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), a disciplined, well-organized Islamist faction with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, managed to squeeze into power in 2002, even though it was a minority opposed by millions of pro-Western, secular Muslims. It increased its popularity by foreswearing any intention to impose sharia, avoiding the taint of financial corruption, adopting responsible economic policies, and only gradually enacting items on the Islamist punch-list — beginning with the ones that enjoyed broad support. Behind the scenes, it used its power both to infiltrate the military and to install its loyalists in important institutions (e.g., the banks, bureaucracy, judiciary, and education system).

Based on this performance, it won reelection with a narrow majority — no small thanks to cheerleading from Western governments and commentators about how Turkey under AKP rule symbolized a modern, “moderate” Islam. With that cover, the AKP promptly stepped up its Islamicization program, ordered arrests of its political opponents, and began challenging the military. To see what the Islamists could get away with, this challenge started with the arrests of a few officers. When there was no pushback, more prosecutions and harassment followed. It was clear that the military would not rise to the occasion, as the West always assumed it would.

Emboldened, the AKP regime has ended Turkey’s military cooperation with Israel and become an increasingly strident supporter of Palestinian “resistance.” Last spring, Turkey’s government financially backed the “peace flotilla” — an attempt by Brotherhood-tied Islamists and anti-American Leftists to break Israel’s blockade of Hamas in Gaza. Turkey now formally rejects the description of Hamas as a terrorist organization, referring to it as a democratically elected political organization that is merely defending its rightful territory. The AKP government has also cozied up to Hezbollah and Syria while working against Western efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

Here’s the part that ought to scare us: Unlike Turkey, Egypt has never undergone a rigorous, decades-long effort to purge Islam from public life. The AKP had a higher mountain to climb. If the Muslim Brotherhood gets its turn at the wheel and steers as shrewdly, the transformation of Egypt won’t happen tomorrow . . . but neither will it take the eight years Turkey needed.

—  Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.

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