What the roots of the Egyptian revolution tell us about a post-Mubarak Egypt.
As the chaos in Egypt rages on, even the most ardent pro-democracy spectators are expressing skepticism with regard to the future of the country. Fellow traveler Nicholas Kristof pondered in The New York Times Saturday, “[I]f Egyptian protesters overcome the government, would this be 1979 or 1989?” In other words: are we witnessing the birth pangs of an Iranian-style theocracy or a vibrant free society? “No one can predict with certainty,” Kristof believes. But in fact, there are clear signs of where Egypt is headed, if we only look at the root of the current revolution. This evidence unfortunately shows that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood stands to benefit handsomely from the turmoil.
What exactly do we know about the Egyptian revolution? Broadly speaking, the Egyptian opposition forces, those mobilizing against President Hosni Mubarak, are primarily a coalition of Islamists and socialists, and they have in fact been working together to undermine the Mubarak regime for quite some time. The principal opposition groups behind the uprising are: the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the largest; Mohamed ElBaradei and the National Association for Change; and the socialist youth movement, the foremost component of which is the April 6th Movement.
Serious opposition to the 30-year Mubarak regime began to emerge during the second Palestinian Intifada in Israel’s Gaza Strip. The so-called “cold peace” between Egypt and Israel, which President Mubarak sustained, did not deter Egyptians from demonstrating in solidarity with warring Palestinians, creating a rift between the ostensibly pro-Israel President Mubarak and the population. This only intensified in the following years with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Egyptians took to the streets to protest the Iraq war, again putting the people at odds with the American-allied Mubarak regime.
Between 2003-2005, in pursuit of its “freedom agenda,” the Bush administration began to put pressure on the Mubarak government to institute democratic reforms, including by allowing multi-party elections. According to a report from the Rand Corporation, what emerged in opposition to Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) was a loose coalition of Egyptian Islamist and socialist groups, who united under the moniker “Kefaya” (“enough” in Arabic). While Kefaya supporters were diverse, they coalesced around two related objectives: opposition to Israel, and opposition to Mubarak, who had maintained peace with Israel and who was working to bolster his own executive authority (through, for instance, authoritarian revisions to the constitution and preparing his son Gamal to inherit the presidency). Kefaya, which eventually developed a strong youth wing, organized for non-NDP candidates in the 2005 election and protested for democratic reforms and against Mubarak and his maneuvers toward hereditary rule.
The results from this democratic movement were far from encouraging. It acted as a catalyst for a Muslim Brotherhood power-grab. Out of the 444 seats in Egypt’s parliament, 88 seats went to Muslim Brotherhood members (running as independents), hundreds went to the NDP, while less than half the number of seats gained by the Brotherhood went to other reformers (neither Brotherhood nor NDP members). Thus, we have certainly seen in recent times what a more open democratic process looks like in Egypt. A well-organized, popular Islamist faction, working in conjunction with non-Islamist reformers, capably co-opted democratic momentum. It is these same actors -- the same coalition -- working to overthrow the Mubarak regime in Egypt today. What reason do we have to expect different electoral results?
Even in the best case scenario, one in which moderate reformers achieve perhaps equal gains with the Islamists, most of the anti-Mubarak opposition is nonetheless united with respect to its enmity toward the U.S. and Israel (in addition to its desire for genuine democratic reforms). The includes Kefaya’s socialist youth component. In fact, when Kefaya began to fall apart after the 2005 election, a youth group called Youth for Change announced that it would withdraw because the coalition was not sufficiently anti-American and anti-Israel.
It was the socialist youth movement of Kefaya that spawned April 6th Movement, which is widely credited with igniting the current Egyptian uprising and is responsible for much of its organization. One of the key figures behind the April 6th Movement is Ahmed Maher, who had previously worked with Kefaya. The April 6th Movement seeks political and socialist reforms, such as a minimum monthly wage, and one of its major independent enterprises (whence it derives its name) was a successful national labor strike, organized in the spring of 2008. Like other sectors of the Egyptian youth movement, the April 6th Movement has a strong an anti-Israel component. Among its political demands, the group calls for an end to gas exports to Israel, according to its blog. Gas from Egypt is exported to many countries around the world, although the group only demands a cessation of exports to the Jewish State.
In January 2009, the April 6th Youth Movement joined in vicious protests against Israel for its retaliation against Hamas rocket attacks. According to a New York Times profile, the protests were mostly led by the Muslim Brotherhood. In their anger over Israel’s attack on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, demonstrators condemned Mubarak for maintaining relations with Israel, exporting natural gas to Israel, and for restricting movement through Egypt’s border into Gaza.
In addition to joining with the Muslim Brotherhood in the past and during the current unrest, the internet-savvy, socialist youth movement has been very supportive of Mohamed ElBaradei, leader of the Egyptian umbrella-group, National Association for Change (NAC). According to a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the NAC was formed in 2010 by ElBaradei to “rejuvenate the opposition scene,” presumably Kefaya. Other reports have noted that, sensing instability in the Mubarak regime, NAC’s purpose was to facilitate the president’s ouster and to serve as a "shadow parliament."
Not only has the Muslim Brotherhood recently endorsed ElBaradei to lead the anti-Mubarak opposition, but it has a history of working with ElBaradei and the NAC in the past. In a 2010 petition campaign, the NAC received crucial support from the Brotherhood. In a show of the Islamist group’s clout among the Egyptian people, the Brotherhood was responsible for the collection of 2/3 of the petition’s 300,000 plus signatures.
ElBaradei himself is a controversial figure. Although it is true that he has had amicable relations with President Barack Obama in the past during his time as director general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, ElBaradei was a vocal critic of the Bush administration, who accused ElBaradei of “muddying” the issue of nuclear deterrence to Iran’s advantage. ElBaradei was hostile to the international community’s position on nuclear non-proliferation, claiming that the double standard of allowing some nations to have a nuclear arsenal, while forbidding others, has lost credibility in the Arab world. The Israeli government at the time viewed him as dangerous and said that he threatened world peace.
Thus, the major players of the anti-Mubarak opposition should give us a great deal of pause. Another power-grab by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions, as is certainly within the realm of possibilities, would be a serious loss for U.S. interests, the region, and for the Egyptian people themselves. On the other hand, the prospect of non-Islamist opposition in the seat of power is cold comfort to a wary Israel, a crucial bulwark of peace in the region, which stands to lose its most reliable Arab ally to pervasive anti-Israelism. Whether Mubarak's reign will terminate sooner than later is rather immaterial in light of these seemingly unalterable alternatives.