The Egyptian revolution’s leaders have an illiberal agenda
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.
Press reports to the contrary, Kefaya has never been entirely secular. Islamists have always had a central role in the coalition. That includes the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been cautious and intermittent in its work with Kefaya, since the Brotherhood is more at risk of government repression if it openly participates in demonstrations. But another Islamist group, the al-Wasat party, a bit more moderate than the Muslim Brotherhood, has also been a longtime member of Kefaya.
So when media accounts present Kefaya as a wide-ranging alliance of secular parties from across the political spectrum, that is highly misleading. Not only has Kefaya always had an Islamist component, but on both economic and foreign policy it has a pronounced anti-American and hard-left tilt. Kefaya was formed in 2004 to “protect the Arab existence against the Zionist-American projects.” Treating Kefaya as a bastion of Western-style democratic aspirations is a bit like celebrating an international anti-American confederation led by Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez as proof that the world’s Islamists and Marxists have turned into Jeffersonian liberals.
It’s true that Kefaya advertises itself to the Western press as a bastion of democratic reform. The coalition’s formal program stresses rule of law, constitutional reform, and separation of powers. Yet this is chiefly a tactic designed to garner Western support, thereby undercutting Egypt’s authoritarian regime. Look closely at Kefaya’s aspirations and it’s evident that these democratic reforms are considered merely a “transitional” phase in a more radical program of changes. What comes next for this coalition of Communists, socialists, Nasserists, and Islamists not only will disappoint Westerners, but will divide the coalition against itself. And none of the plausible long-term aspirations fit the template of Western democratic liberalism.
So Kefaya keeps its illiberal ideologies and anti-Western tendencies under wraps. In effect, Kefaya has reversed the Mubarak regime’s favored pattern of duplicity. Whereas Mubarak disguised objectively pro-American policies with anti-American and anti-Zionist rhetoric, Kefaya has learned to downplay its illiberal and anti-American ideologies, tactically emphasizing its short-term “democratic” intentions for purposes of winning over world opinion and defusing American opposition.
Unsophisticated domestic critics of Kefaya have long called on it to sponsor more openly anti-American demonstrations. To this, one of Kefaya’s leaders replies: “The burning of [a] thousand American . . . flags will not change what a real nationalist regime in Egypt can change.” In other words, Kefaya’s leaders understand that soft-pedaling anti-Americanism for the purposes of successfully replacing the Mubarak regime is the best way to defeat American interests in the end. It would be a mistake, then, to take the absence of overt anti-Americanism among the demonstrators in Tahrir Square as proof of a pro-Western attitude.
Kefaya knows we are watching. Pamphlets distributed by the Kefaya-steered leadership in Tahrir Square warn the protesters that the eyes of the world are upon them. Kefaya head George Isaac (often spelled Ishak) recently told CNN: “You cannot call us Kefaya or Muslim Brotherhood or leftists or anything. We talk today as Egyptians.” Isaac protests too much. Yet so far he and his colleagues have succeeded in steering the attention of the American press away from the shadow-alliance of leftists and Islamists that stood behind the demonstrators in Tahrir Square.
Kefaya’s leaders are perfectly aware that America’s “neoconservatives” see democratization as a way to move Egypt toward a stable pro-Western posture, at least over the long term. Kefaya has contempt for these plans. Kefaya’s leaders were using the aspirations of Western democratizers to put pressure on Mubarak, in the service of a regime change designed to undercut American interests. Manar Shorbagy’s revealing 2007 account of Kefaya in the journal Public Culture reports that Kefaya’s leaders rejected an invitation from the U.S. embassy to join the audience at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s 2005 address on democracy at Cairo’s American University. Shorbagy considers the very fact of the invitation evidence of “willful, neoconservative ignorance of political life in Egypt today.” In Shorbagy’s view, Kefaya leaders have long made a practice of successfully exploiting the misplaced hopes of American conservatives to foster their decidedly anti-Western plans.
Many of Kefaya’s leaders fear the Muslim Brotherhood, even as they work with it in coalition. Shorbagy judged in 2007 that Kefaya was far too weak to stand up to the Brotherhood in free elections. Obviously, Kefaya’s prominent role in the coalition that provided informal leadership to the demonstrations in Tahrir Square has given the movement new momentum. The Muslim Brotherhood is once again actively cooperating with Kefaya. The Brotherhood agreed to take only a 15 percent share of seats in the shadow legislature, and that has dampened worries about Brotherhood control of a new regime. The Muslim Brotherhood is highly sensitive to concerns in the Egyptian army and the West that it may quickly stage an Iran-style takeover. So a worst-case scenario may be avoided, at least in the short term. The Brotherhood will want to work with and through others for a time.
But what then? An obvious outcome of democratic elections would be a majority coalition in parliament made up of the Muslim Brotherhood and the spectrum of leftist, Islamist, and left-Nasserist parties that run Kefaya. This alliance might be filled out by legislators running under the banner of Mohamed ElBaradei, who works closely with Kefaya. Such a coalition would be deeply anti-American and anti-Israel in foreign policy, and would unite to block privatization and re-socialize the economy, Nasser-style.
Perhaps worse, the savvy and cosmopolitan politicians leading Kefaya’s political parties would know how to gradually sever Egypt’s relationship with the West, without provoking a U.S.-supported counter-coup by the army. The treaty with Israel would be temporarily affirmed, and the Suez Canal would remain open. Slowly but surely, however, American interests would be undercut, as Egypt sought realignment with other international partners. With economic privatization halted and reversed, the forces driving Egypt closer to authentic liberal democracy would decline. In the long run, depending on the appeal over time of a newly legitimized Muslim Brotherhood, we would confront either a move toward full-scale Islamism or a renewal of left-Nasserist anti-American nationalism. So the choice we face in a new Egypt is not between pro-Western democracy and the risks of an Islamist takeover, but between different forms of anti-Americanism.
Tiny and weak liberal and pro-capitalist parties do exist in Egypt, but they are the smallest part of the mix. Perhaps, with American help, these liberal elements could ally with remnants of the regime’s National Democratic party to hold off a left-Islamist anti-American coalition. This would be particularly true if the new president were not, like Mohamed ElBaradei, a cat’s paw of the Kefaya coalition. But a nationalist president, such as Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa, would likely work closely with Kefaya and the Brotherhood to pull Egypt away from the U.S.
Without a president anchored in the military and willing to work with America on the model of Mubarak, it’s hard to imagine how even a coalition of tiny liberal parties and the old regime’s National Democratic party could afford to openly side with the United States. After all, the Mubarak regime was distinguished by its use of anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric to cover its work with the U.S. Any electoral coalition openly carrying forward Egypt’s current foreign policy would likely be doomed to failure. This is something Americans might want to keep in mind when contemplating the emergence of an elected parliament. Such a legislature could swiftly fall under the sway of illiberal parties whose devotion to democracy is decidedly tactical and temporary.
The important thing is to open our eyes to the realities of Egyptian politics. Press reports are idealizing and white-washing extremist and anti-American elements in the leadership of a supposedly pro-Western movement. The people directing the revolution understand these Western hopes and are well placed to exploit them. The best antidote to dangerously wishful thinking is careful attention to the background and ideology of the political forces actually driving the Egyptian revolution.
– Mr. Kurtz is a contributing editor of National Review Online and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.