Thursday, February 10, 2011

Can Egypt turn into Islamic State after Mubarak?

The talk about the increasing popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood among protesters is very true. It is not government propaganda. The politically motivated religious group, which is officially banned by the Egyptian regime, did not participate in the protests from the beginning as a group, but as individual Egyptians. On the second week of revolution, they decided to come to streets with their collective identity as members of the MB group. They did not use any specific MB-related or Islamic slogans, but they moved together in blocs.

Since Friday, the Muslim Brotherhood are dominating the protesting scene, especially in Cairo and Alexandria, although of course, there are so many other protesters from various groups: leftists, secularists, and liberals. Also, on the political level, we have seen them negotiating on behalf of protesters with the Vice-President, which can be interpreted as recognition from the state of their legitimacy.

That was not the case before January 25. That triggers the very important question on how big is the potential for the Muslim Brotherhood to lead the country after Mubarak leaves either now or after the end of his term.

To answer this question, let’s first try to interpret how the MB gained popularity among the protesters and are now negotiating in their name although they were not the starters of the revolution. Lasat Wednesday and Thursday there were horrible clashes between supporters of Mubarak (allegedly thugs hired by the regime to kill protesters) and young protesters. They were more than clashes, some of the thugs had guns and shot the protesters at night from the tops of the rooves in Tahrir Square. Some died and so many got injured. The MB members played a very important role in saving the lives of the majority of the protesters. They are very well trained on how to fight and how to defend themselves in armed conflict. They are highly organized.

So, they were able to counter attack the thugs and defeat them and save the lives of protesters. Otherwise, the thugs could have killed everyone there on that horrible night where they were shooting activists from the buildings surrounding Tahrir Square. This way, the MB gained big popularity among protesters.

Simultaneously, we need to understand why the Egyptian regime changes the way it deals with the Muslim Brotherhood group, which was once labeled by the regime as illegitimate. There are so many reasons:

First, the government wants to win more time by going through meaningless negotiations with old opposition groups and parties. The Muslim Brotherhood is one of them. Although they do not represent the revolution and did not play any role in starting it, they are much easier to negotiate with. The regime knows very well how to control them and make them go through the path the regime draws.

But the young Facebookers who are the real keyplayers in this revolution are still a new untested opponent that the regime does not really know how to deal with.

Second, by discriminating against the political groups in terms with whom to call and whom not to call for negotiations, the regime is trying to create factions in the currently unified bloc of opposition. This is a very well-known strategy that has been used by dictators all over the world and it has been used in Egypt over the past thirty years.

Third, by showing and emphasizing the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in the political scene, the regime wants to send a negative message to its international allies, especially the US that Egypt would turn into an Islamic country after Mubarak and subsequently the Middle East would get into eternal war between Islamists in Egypt and Iran on one side and Israel on the other side.

This was the motto of Mubarak over the past thirty years: “if it is not me, it is the Muslim Brotherhood.” I am sorry to say that most of the politicians in Washington believe this. I was told more than once: “the devil we know is better than the devil we do not know.” Perhaps that is why we have seen this strange change in Washington’s attitude over the past three days from insistence on the immediate removal of Mubarak to asking the people to give him an opportunity to stay in power until the end of his term.

Now, let’s investigate the most urgent question that every one inside and outside Egypt cares for right now: how high is the potential of the Muslim Brotherhood to get to power after Mubarak? The Muslim Brotherhood represents on average 15 percent of the protesters. The western media have been mistakenly portraying them as the largest opposition group in Egypt for so long. If they were, the could have been able to launch a revolution like the one we witness these days.

The Muslim Brotherhood are popular only among certain grassroots citizens that cannot differentiate between their political mission and its relation to Islam. Those citizens we call the silent bloc, which may like to see change but rarely participate in calling for it. It is true that the Muslim Brotherhood won a large number of seats in Parliament in 2005. But that does not reflect their popularity on ground at all. Given the fact we have never had free and fair elections, this reflects that the regime wanted them to be a majority to beat the then growing influence of liberals.

At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood have very limited popularity among the young people who represent 70 percent of population. Even the young people affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood reject the policy of the group and the way its leaders deal with them. So many of them have left the group already and joined the liberal movement.

Additionally, it does not make any sense that the people are sacrificing their lives today to replace an autocratic regime with a theocratic regime. The Egyptian youth, who are leading change in Egypt today, were supporting their young peers in Iran against the hardliners in the Iranian regime in 2009. They know very well that they will not gain any benefit by having a theocratic regime under the Muslim Brotherhood or any other form of Islamic regime.

To make it simpler let’s try make a simple calculation. 12 percent of Egyptians are non-Muslim citizens. Those added to the 70 percent mentioned above, equals 82 percent of the Egyptian population that will not vote for an Islamic state under any condition.

Finally, the Washington Institute for Near East Studies released a very interesting poll, that is said to be "the first-ever reliable public opinion poll of Egyptians on these issues, taken by telephone in the midst of the current political upheaval." The poll results indicated that "This is not an Islamic uprising. The Muslim Brotherhood is approved by just 15 percent of Egyptians -- and its leaders get barely 1 percent of the vote in a presidential straw poll. Asked to pick national priorities, only 12 percent of Egyptians choose sharia (Islamic law) over Egypt's regional leadership, democracy, or economic development. And, when asked to explain the uprising, the issues of economic conditions, corruption, and unemployment (around 30 percent each) far outpace the concern that "the regime is not Islamic enough" (only 7 percent)." 

The west must understand that the Islamic state is not, if at all, the only alternative to Mubarak’s autocracy. There is a growing young liberal movement in Egypt that needs all help and support from the world’s democracies and international community, if they really care for a better stable Middle East in the future.