Egypt: What will happen if the Muslim Brotherhood seize power?


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.

Egypt-protests-31-01-11
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.

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  • http://www.boards4u.co.uk George Woodhouse

    Maybe someone should mention to T Blair that this is the way regime change is meant to happen!

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  • http://www.game-view.net Ian Silvera

    Perversely, a bad day for secularism , a good day for direct democracy.

  • http://joetote'sblog joetote

    I have just seen numerous reports of a leading Iman there warning Israel to prepare for war.
    And one would be shocked by this? I repeat! This appears to be the lion going after the wounded prey!
    Could all the turmoil we are seeing in Muslim countries be an offshoot of perceived weakness on the part of the United States and her allies! I for one have always felt this President is firmly on the side of the Muslim world as a whole. Certainly he is the most antagonistic President as in his stance on Israel I have ever seen. This new Iranian poster boy feels the President WILL NOT do anything other than to warn Israel to stand back and let the events take their course.
    As we now are at the point in which we have elected officials telling the Muslim world this country is full of racist hate and an administration that in almost every stance is extremely ” Anti-American ideals” why should one be surprised that these radical Muslim Fundamentalists are taking their shots now? After all, this is the administration that just the other day as an example declared the Egyptian government was stable. No surprise from the blind mice running the show in D.C. now is it?
    It is my understanding Iran is ecstatic about the coming regime change in Egypt. If so, what does this do to the region? It in fact puts another knife at Israel’s throat along with another one aimed squarely at the U.S. which we know for sure will threaten oil supplies and therefore raise oil prices thus causing more economic problems.
    And for one to be “surprised that the Anti-Israel rhetoric has started to emanate from the Egyptian protesters only shows how far up their rears this administration and the apologists for the Radical Muslims have their heads stuck! Combine that with El Baradei, another poster boy from Iran and one has to expect the worst case scenario.
    One can agree that this has been something that has been festering in Egypt for quite sometime. However, as we have learned with the failed feel good Socialist policies being shoved down out throats here, there is always the law of unintended consequences. One feels in this case, the consequences can and will be disastrous.

  • http://criticalcounterculture.blogspot.com/ Rob

    @Seph: Great article, what I have been saying for some time. The best chance for peace in the region is for countries like Egypt and Turkey to take the lead in pressuring Israel to make concessions. It would be nice to see the Arab countries of the Middle East look after their populations and stand up for themselves in a non-violent way like the South American nations have. Islam should not automatically be equated with violence.

    @joetote: Israel is deserving of much criticism and opposition. It would be nice to see an American administration taking a step back and listening to people in the region for once, although I remain to be convinced that this is actually happening. El Baradei a posterboy for Iran?! …more like a Western lackey…

  • 13eastie

    @3 Rob,

    What concessions? What is it, short of an act of genosuicide, that you actually think would be sufficient to appease an increasingly bellicose Iran?

    And do you SERIOUSLY think that for the USA to “stand back” and allow Israel become besieged further by organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, will precipitate greater calm in Tel Aviv? (Labour is aligned to Mubarak’s party. Why is that?)

  • http://criticalcounterculture.blogspot.com/ Rob

    @4: WTF this got to do with Iran, other than it being the Tea Party’s bogie man. Fear, hatred, Arabs, Islam, Iran…blah, blah, blah…so bored of this! Massive cultural, political and strategic divergences between Egypt and Iran regardless of who is in power.

    There are many areas where Israel can be pressured to make concessions in negotiations; borders, rights of return, settlement building…

    Yes Tel Aviv has a genocidal hatred of anything Arab. Hopefully America might learn to stop indulging this and Israel might learn to coexist with its neighbours without bombing the hell out of them every time they show the slightest opposition or pretence to any form of power and independence. The Mubarak regime has been complicit by its silence in Israel’s nefarious doings in Gaza. Israel can get away with war crimes because it fears no-one, hopefully this will change.

  • 13eastie

    @5 Are you honestly that blinkered in your view of the world?

    I’m no fan of Israel.

    Reality: Iran is the major sponsor of anti-Israeli terror. It is also the only realistic prospective nuclear competitor for Israel.

  • http://criticalcounterculture.blogspot.com/ Rob

    @6: Are you really that blind to the complexities of the world that you think Egypt – Arab, Sunni and nationalist – is going to become Iran’s terrorist bitch-proxy?!

  • 13eastie

    @7: Well I suppose we could consider the long history of peace between Israel and Egypt…

  • Scarlett

    Mabrook ya Seph! Really well written xx

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  • http://www.mikeconomics.net Mike Guillaume

    To paraphrase Ian Silvera (above), these are bad days for secularism , and good days for direct democracy.
    Western democracies, governments (don’t forget international institutions)and media are moving from cynicism -supporting authoritarian regimes for geopolitical reasons- to naivety -thinking that a democracy is coming.
    Those events in Tunisia and Egypt -where next?- should remind us what happened in (and to) Iran. The same causes will produce the same effects, with Islamic(ist) regimes as the most likely outcome.
    Meaning that in a few decades most of the Middle East will have gone… backward from authoritarian yet more secular (don’t forget women’s rights here) regimes to reactionary theocracies.
    Western and, for most, secular democracies are now increasingly facing a double threat of raising Islam inside and Islmacic regimes just nearby.
    We’ll have to deal with those changes otherwise than just going to war (the Israel-Neocon answer).
    But have we done enough to help alternatives blossom?

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  • http://www.modwar.blogspot.com Joe Six-Pack

    It is possible that both Tunisia and Egypt will become democratic republics. In other words, more like Israel than what they were before. This is more than unlikely. Maybe in the short term, they will see some of the freedoms that we take for granted. This will probably not last very long. A few years at the very most.

    One major problem is that democracy takes a long time to become established. Niether Egypt nor Tunisia have this amout of time. Iraq is further along than either of these two, and they have had a great deal of help that neither Egypt nor Tunisia will receive. I doubt that Iraq will be able to maintain what they have, although this still remains to be seen. (The return of Sadr is an indicator of where they are heading.) I see Egypt moving the same way, just more quickly.

    Hey, I can be wrong, just like the rest of us. However, human nature does not change. I find it difficult to believe that ideology that is so well established will be discarded quickly and without violence.

  • Johnny

    I couldn’t help laugh when I read “democracy can work for us, but not for Arabs” – What nonsense! Doesn’t the author realise that over 75% of OUR laws come from Brussels – by people who are completely unaccountable, and who have not had their own accounts signed off by their own court of auditors in 16 YEARS! In the Western world, so many of the decisions that impact our lives are taken by faceless bureaucrats. I would say we need representative democracy as well.

  • http://eoin-clarke.blogspot.com/ Éoin Clarke

    Interesting article. It is worth noting that the secularism of Turke first produced pro-American regimes, but recently switched to populist nationalism. there are no panecea’s for this.

    I cannot help but feel that Marxism has some relevance here.. Is the Arab world entering a new epoch? Will the transition from feudal to bourgeois regimes mean more exploitation of the wrokers…

    Do we need further revolutions to truly give ordinary Arabs the power over their own destiny?

    just thinking aloud, don’t mind me…

  • Mike Joseph

    With regard to Israel, I tend to agree that a newly democratised Egypt will not scrap the peace treaty, at least not immediately. However, I am concerned about how Hamas will react.

    The Eli Lake article that you quote expresses doubt that the new Egypt will continue the blockade of Gaza. It is easy to imagine how this could lead to an increased supply of arms through Egypt, the infiltration of even more extreme elements into Gaza, and the emboldening of Hamas to renew attacks on Israel.

    If the downward spiral were to continue, this could lead to another Operation Cast Lead and it is equally easy to imagine how moderate voices in Egypt could be drowned out by popular demands to go to war with Israel on behalf of their ‘brothers’ in Gaza.

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