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January 31st 2011 print

Matthew Maddern

As Egypt burns

What is happening in Egypt now bears only a superficial resemblance to what happened in Tunisia earlier in the week. The reality is far more nuanced.

Why Egypt is different from Tunisia

What is happening in Egypt now bears only a superficial resemblance to what happened in Tunisia earlier in the week. Those who wishfully parallel the Egyptian revolt in the same tones as the Tunisian tumult are guilty of reducing the Middle East to that of a simplistic caricature – they imagine a region of uniformity where the varied models of leadership are merely dictatorial duplicates repressively ruling over identically inclined idealists. The reality is far more nuanced.

The implications for sudden regime change in Egypt are far greater in magnitude than they are for Tunisia. The current developments must therefore be received with a great deal more caution. What is at stake is control over the most populous state in the Arab world, control over the most powerful and capable military in the Arab world, and the responsibility to monitor some of the most dangerously fertile intellectual territory in the Islamic world.

Egypt is after all where modern political Islam as we know it was born: Hasan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1920s, Sayyid Qubt formulated an intellectual rationale for militant Islam as a modern political ideology, and Osama Bin Laden’s No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri pioneered violent Islamicism. Zawahiri was also involved in the 1995 assassination attempt on the current Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Islamists in Egypt continue to foment radicalism. It was only four weeks ago that the world stood in horrific witness to the brutality of Islamic extremists who bombed an Alexandrian church after a New Year’s Mass. The most popular figure of dissent in Egypt, Mohamed ElBaradei, has often accused Mubarak of using resistance to Islamic violence as an excuse for general domestic repression, but the fact remains that violent Egyptian Islamists are a constant threat.

With the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood encouraging the protesters, and seemingly waiting for their chance to hijack events should Mubarak be forced out of the country, they have attempted to spread premature rumors of the President stepping down (reported on their website, 28 Jan, 2011 – 23:51 “Semi-confirmed: The dictator will step down, his family fled the country secretly”). The prospect of having the Egyptian citizenry rise up against the regime with legitimate grievances must be a dizzying development in the mosques of the extremists; their moment to capitalize is fast approaching should Mubarak’s grip on security weaken further. Mubarak believed this, and that is why prior to the “Day of Rage” he preemptively had the leadership arrested. Despite the formal renunciation of violence, the stated banner of the Muslim Brotherhood remains: “the Koran is our constitution.” There is its questionable relationship to Hamas. And it is important to remember that their peaceful concessions were only made within a constrained political framework. If that framework collapses and the Muslim Brotherhood suddenly finds itself in power, there is reason to suspect a revision of objectives.

However much we would like true liberal-democratic reform to take hold in Egypt – and let me be clear I do sincerely hope this unrest produces real, tangible reform – we must not be fooled into blindly supporting whatever alternative is offered.

There are greater geopolitical ramifications to a hasty change of leadership. The current western alliance with Egypt – long and often justly criticized for tacitly condoning some its more repressive policies – has nevertheless underpinned the relative stability in the Middle East since the 1978 Camp David Accords. The Egyptian leader at the time, Anwar El Sadat was duly assassinated shortly after signing the peace treaty with Israel whereupon Mubarak assumed power. Between 1948 and 1973, Egypt was the prime agitator in three large-scale regional wars against Israel; since Mubarak took office Egypt has been peaceful.

The United States has indeed been reticent to directly challenge the Mubarak regime because of the delicate regional arrangement which largely rests upon the secured assurance that Egypt will remain peacefully disposed to its neighbor. Should Egypt resume a hostile diplomatic posture towards Israel as a result of a change in power, the fearful prospect of regional destabilization will undoubtedly become a reality. However, President Obama, at this crucial juncture, must not go back on his now public support for the Egyptian protesters.

What we have seen so far in Egypt is promising, but it is wrong to conclude so reflexively that the movement is analogous to the events in Tunisia. The beauty of the Tunisian protests was that the crowds were free of Islamists, and were pointedly peaceful. Where Tunisia has a history of secularism, relatively liberal opportunism for women and minorities, and a distinct lack of political violence (the coup in 1987 which brought to power the now deposed Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was pleasantly bloodless), Egypt shares little of these traits.

When the smoke finally clears from Egypt’s cities in the coming weeks, what we should hope not to see is a resemblance to another famous coup which took place at the behest of the youth to oust a corrupt and brutal western backed dictator. That uprising led to the installation of the most notoriously regressive Islamic regime in the world today: that revolution was the 1979 Iranian Revolution.