What Egypt's Islamists learned about grabbing power from their brethren in Lebanon.
Millions of Egyptians, understandably frustrated by their economic plight and the corruption of the ruling regime of President Hosni Mubarak, have taken to the streets to demand that the President step down and permit elections. With the Egyptian Army making clear that it will not use violence and the police having been swept aside by the power of the mob, Mubarak has no allies to turn to. The final blow came when President Obama’s handpicked special envoy to Egypt, former U.S. ambassador Frank Wisner, informed Mubarak that 30 years of American support for his regime was at an end, and suggested that he not seek re-election.
Mubarak soon went on national television and announced exactly that (no doubt swayed by the fact that while Wisner was delivering President Obama’s message in private, Obama was announcing it publicly to the world). It is unlikely that Mubarak will be able to hold onto power until the next election, scheduled to occur in eight months. Soon, perhaps within weeks, Egypt will have new leadership. There is every reason to fear what such a government will look like.
While Mubarak must shoulder the blame for the corrupt excesses of his regime, he has served Western interests well. As president of Egypt, he has maintained amicable relations with Israel, worked to suppress Islamism in his own country, co-operated with the West in the War on Terror and kept the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arabic Islamist political organization, in check.
The Muslim Brotherhood is politically savvy; they know not to conspicuously or publicly support terrorism and portray themselves as moderates. Many in North America and Europe have bought into their rhetoric of speaking for strict Islam but not Islamism. The Muslim Brotherhood have been similarly shrewd in Egypt: When a recent proposal by the Brotherhood to give Islamic religious courts veto power over all new laws triggered a popular backlash, the Brotherhood quickly backed down in the name of moderation — but still pressed for a law that would ban Christians and women from high political office. While they claim to have renounced all violence, many of their adherents aren’t so picky: Hamas, the fanatically anti-Israel terrorists running the Gaza Strip, is a branch of the Brotherhood that seems to have missed the anti-violence memo.
As an established organization with funding, leadership and boots on the ground, the Muslim Brotherhood will have a head start at preparing for Egypt’s transition to "democracy." Therein lies the danger. The entire process has happened so fast that chaos will be the inevitable result, and moderate Egyptians — the very ones that the West would wish to see in power — find themselves afraid for their future. They have good reason to be fearful. Even under Mubarak, the Brotherhood was able to establish itself as a major political force in Egypt, and it has already shrewdly announced its support of the relatively moderate, but generally anti-Western, Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaredei. With Mubarak soon to be gone, one way or the other, there seems to be nothing in place that can stop the Brotherhood from becoming a major player in Egyptian politics.
The Brotherhood has clearly learned well the lesson of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It does not need to outright seize power. In fact, Hezbollah did itself a great deal of good by setting itself up as the real power behind a moderate leader. Only when Hezbollah was strong enough to take control did it bring down the moderate government it had been a part of. Egypt faces a similar threat. Today, the Brotherhood might preach moderation, and speak to domestic issues such as jobs, less corruption and economic growth. Only when they have gathered enough supporters will they cast aside their moderate pretensions and work to impose an Islamic state.
At this point, there is probably little that can be done to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from becoming a powerful force inside Egypt, perhaps the force. Even the Obama administration has signaled that it is prepared to accept a Muslim Brotherhood presence inside a future Egyptian government, as long as it rejects violence and supports democracy. How absurd. Once in power it will be easy for the Brotherhood to play the political game and avoid directly calling for violence while still using its position to destabilize American interests in the Middle East. It can non-violently and democratically end cooperation with Israel, begin to impose elements of shariah law on the Egyptian population and relax the restrictions that have kept Islamism out of power in Egypt for so long. The Brotherhood can easily complicate Israel’s security situation by simply turning a blind eye as weapons and supplies flow freely to their Hamas allies in Gaza.
If there is any hope at all for the West in the new Egyptian reality, it may be that the military and security services, armed and trained by the West and believed to be anti-Islamist, will still be a major force in Egyptian politics, and might serve to somewhat check the Islamist’s power in any new Egyptian government. While that might be the best that can be hoped for, it is hardly good news — it is essentially Pakistan all over again, where a pro-American military struggles to keep surging Islamist forces from taking over the country, fueling a vicious cycle of terrorism and political corruption.
One Pakistan was bad enough. Another, in the most significant Arab country and directly next door to Israel, will be a disaster for the West. It will turn Israel’s most reliable local partner into a security risk, at best, it will leave Washington without a key Muslim ally in the struggle to contain Iran, and it could easily lead to more and more revolutions across the Middle East until the entire region, never particularly stable to begin with, descends into near anarchy to the benefit only of Islamic extremists.
There are already signs that Yemen and Jordan might be next, and Morocco and Syria are also at risk. Even Saudi Arabia is far from secure. If revolution sweeps the Middle East, America will see its influence there essentially vanish, and Iran will exploit that chaos to further enhance its own power. Israel will find itself even more besieged than ever. Weak governments from northern Africa to the Persian Gulf will be ripe for infiltration by radical elements eager to seize any opportunity to impose their own version of Islam on the world. It is impossible to predict what will be the end result of this scenario, but nearly as hard to imagine how it will not be a catastrophic reality for the West and Israel.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on . Follow him on Twitter: @mattgurney.