All trains and internal state-airline flights across Egypt have been cancelled ahead of calls for a million-strong march in Cairo tomorrow. As the protesters complete a week of demonstrations and the international community refuses to stand by the embattled autocrat, President Hosni Mubarak is on the verge of being ousted. As their father attempts to intimidate and appease the crowds, Mubarak’s sons have reportedly fled to London in anticipation of the revolution’s success.
Middle East envoy Tony Blair has called regime change in Egypt “inevitable” while US and European leaders have announced – albeit belatedly – that they are looking for an “orderly transition” towards democracy. The hesitation amongst western governments to call for Mubarak’s immediate resignation stems from the double-bind of dependence on long-term, predictable, dictators in a geopolitically strategic region and their advocacy of democracy and civil and human rights.
The fear, as ever in the Middle East, is that any movement away from autocratic secular regimes means the inevitable slide into radical, equally oppressive, theocratic government hostile to the West and antagonistic towards Israel. Fraser Nelson in the Spectator shares his concern that revolutions almost always lead to something worse while even the most left-wing daily newspaper in Israel contains almost apocalyptic scepticism regarding Egyptian self-determination.
This seems to be the prevalent worry amongst most Western commentators, but as the pundits blog, write their columns and speak to various news agencies, it seems they are falling further into a malaise which Palestinian-American academic Edward Said called “orientalism”.
That is to say, Western analysis often seems to frame the debate as if there is reasonable doubt that Arabs can be relied upon to run their own affairs. There is a sense that democracy in the Middle East is optional when weighed up against the potential for governments to come to power who are less amiable to the West. Orientalist undertones in this sense, Said would argue, stem from an acceptable hangover from the centuries-old belief that the modern, educated, western nations know better than their once colonial subjects.
The pivotal discussion about ‘what happens next’ is somewhat tainted by this view and obscures proper evaluation of the real issues and events as they are happening on the ground in Egypt. These protests have not been led by theologians, clerics or the Muslim Brotherhood – but by citizens tired of oppressive rule, rising food prices and stubbornly high unemployment.
The Muslim Brotherhood – who renounced violence in the 1970s and routinely condemn terrorism and inter-faith hostility – has endorsed secular candidate Mohamed El-Baradei as the temporary replacement to Mubarak before elections can be held. Mohammad Badie, the chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Newsweek in November last year:
“The only way to achieve peaceful change is through the ballot box.”
The West should not fear the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement in a transparent democratic process. Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University, Tariq Ramadan, told the BBC this afternoon that the Muslim Brotherhood makes up only around 30% of the opposition to Mubarak. He also noted that the Brotherhood is a broad church of conservative Muslims alongside more liberal peers, closer to that of Turkish secularism.
There is also no accounting for the fact that the Brotherhood has for years been seen as the only organised opposition through which Egyptians are able to vent their frustrations, regardless of their social background or class. In an open system it is likely that more centrist and liberal parties will be formed. The International Crisis Group argued in 2008 that the Brotherhood’s broad support base was largely a result of the state’s oppressive, often incompetent regime and that transparency and integration are the only mechanisms to limit the support for Islamic parties.
Setting aside the Brotherhood’s questionable potential for resounding electoral success, we must also remember that Egypt has been the second largest recipient of US aid for many decades, receiving on average two billion dollars per year. Any democratic government will face the fact that unrest in Egypt has always been firmly set in economic strife, and risking hundreds of millions of dollars in aid by provoking Israel and the United States will not help facilitate the economic reforms that the general public desperately demand.
With regards to Israel, the fear that a new government would pull out of the 1979 peace treaty seems highly unlikely. This is best summed up by Washington Post correspondent Eli Lake:
“I don’t think a new Egyptian government would withdraw from the peace treaty with Israel. It’s hard to govern Egypt, provoking a war with Israel would be suicidal.
“The Muslim Brotherhood leadership would always talk about the peace treaty in terms of a referendum for the Palestinian people. But I don’t think it would want the Egyptian security services enmeshed with Hamas’s enemies in the West Bank.”
It would be naïve to think that a democratic regime would not be more willing to confront the United States on issues with which they disagree. After all, the Egyptian electorate have been systematically oppressed and impoverished by a government propped up by America and the West for decades. Likewise, there is little doubt that a democratic Egypt would be more forceful with its dealings with Israel, who continue to illegally occupy land belonging to Arab Palestinians.
The right to self-determination includes the right to disagree and western governments should call for immediate, transparent elections and not be tempted by orientalist ideas that democracy can work for us, but not for Arabs.