What if the fundamental terms of our debate over Egypt’s revolution are wrong? Supposedly, the revolt that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak presented American policymakers with an agonizing choice: Do we side with a dictator against pro-Western demonstrators who share our democratic values, or do we cast aside a leader who has been an important strategic ally, knowing that the Muslim Brotherhood may someday seize the revolution from the secular democrats who inspired it?
In fact, the movement now eager to inherit power from Cairo’s military rulers is considerably less secular, pro-Western, and democratic than advertised. While many of the students demonstrating in Cairo’s Tahrir Square are non-ideological supporters of Western-style democracy, the leadership of the revolution is dominated by an anti-American coalition of hard-leftists and Islamists called Kefaya (sometimes spelled Kifaya). Even if a successful revolution were to avoid an Iran-style seizure by the Muslim Brotherhood, another danger looms. An alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the spectrum of parties represented by Kefaya would pull Egypt out of the Western orbit, in both economic and foreign policy. Not only would that damage America’s strategic interests, it would undercut the liberalizing economic forces a transition to authentic democracy requires.
The demonstrators in Tahrir Square were informally led by a ten-member steering committee. That committee, in turn, represents a “shadow legislature” that effectively serves as the protesters’ government-in-waiting. The steering committee is dominated by Kefaya. In Arabic, Kefaya means “Enough!” — the protesters’ favorite chant. Some steering-committee members are openly listed as representatives of Kefaya, while others represent parties at the core of the Kefaya coalition. In effect, then, the Kefaya alliance is the most important power behind the demonstrations.
Kefaya is a coalition of Communists, socialists, Islamists, and nationalists in the tradition of Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who advocated an “Arab socialism.” There is also a smaller and more liberal component to the Kefaya coalition, but even this leans leftist on economic policy.
Only very rarely do press accounts make any of this clear. Back in 2009, the New York Times more or less accurately described Kefaya as “a loose coalition of socialist, leftist, and Islamist groups.” More recently, the Times simply called it “a secular opposition movement.” Typical of the thin and innocuous-sounding descriptions in recent press accounts was the Washington Post’s characterization of Kefaya as a group founded by leaders “fed up with the stagnant state of political life in Egypt.”
Actually, Kefaya’s founders were fed up with Mubarak’s cooperation with America, his support for the peace treaty with Israel, and his attempts to liberalize Egypt’s economy by shrinking its stagnating public sector. It’s no accident that the Kefaya alliance crystallized, in part, around opposition to Mubarak’s plan to hand off the presidency to his son Gamal. That was an undemocratic move by Mubarak to create a hereditary dynasty, and Kefaya has been smart enough to play up the democracy angle to the Western press. Yet Gamal Mubarak was also the force behind Egypt’s economic liberalization, and that was Kefaya’s real objection to his rule. Gamal’s corrupt crony capitalism is no shining model, although the growth it sparked helped create the modernized middle class now leading the protests. Yet Kefaya’s alliance of Communists, Nasserists, and Islamists is far from the liberal and pro-Western force it’s often made out to be.
The leaders of Kefaya, veterans of Egypt’s “1970s generation,” came to political consciousness when the rule of Nasser was at its height. Nasser’s vision of aggressive Arab nationalism abroad and socialism at home stayed with them, inspiring their bitter opposition as student leaders to the openings to Israel and America sponsored by Nasser’s successor, Anwar el Sadat. Egypt’s anti-Sadat student leaders of the 1970s were divided into warring camps of Marxism, left-Nasserism, and Islamism, yet all three factions united on foreign policy. Anti-Sadat student radicals were unalterably opposed to the Camp David accords, and to Sadat’s efforts to decentralize the economy by opening it up to Western investment. In the face of Sadat’s turn to the West, the leaders of a besieged and divided student opposition movement cultivated the virtues of cooperation. So although Kefaya was formally founded in 2004, it is the fruit of decades during which the anti-Sadat student radicals of the 1970s learned to put aside their ideological differences and work cooperatively within an anti-regime alliance.