February 4, 2011

Thinking clearly about Egypt

In wake of recent unrest, fundamentalism in Egypt is not cause for concern

The astonishing speed with which the crisis in Egypt has unfolded over the past 10 days has made events there very difficult to predict. However, one speculation seems to remain constant across the many stories written on the subject: the idea that the collapse of the current government will pave the way for the triumph of radical Islam. And while observers have repeatedly raised the specter of an Islamist (i.e., Islamic extremist) takeover, there have been few efforts to think carefully about what role Islamic extremists might actually play in a post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt and their impact on the U.S.’s concerns in the region.

First, we need to be clear about exactly how much power Islamists are likely to wield in a new Egyptian regime. The most powerful Islamist organization in contemporary Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, a decades-old movement. In light of the fact that the Brotherhood is the only major organized opposition faction and in the past has participated in Egypt’s restricted parliamentary elections, it will likely have a better starting position than secular groups in any jockeying for power that occurs. However, the movement played a fairly minor public role in the early stages of the ongoing uprising and has only tried to make its presence felt more recently. This reticence will likely reduce its anti-establishment legitimacy relative to other groups. While the Brotherhood could try to seize power by force, it formally renounced violence in the ’70s and has launched no attacks in Egypt since. Overall, it seems likely that while Islamists will certainly play a prominent role in a new Egyptian regime, they will probably not be the sole or even dominant players.

The main concerns of those who fear the rise of radical Islam in Egypt are security-related. Some have suggested that an Egyptian government in which Islamists play a strong role will be friendlier to al-Qaeda, but this seems unlikely. Al-Qaeda has long condemned Brotherhood members in secular politics as heretics for their participation, so it seems doubtful that a government in which the Brotherhood participated would welcome them. The organization’s stance on Israel is a more serious concern—some members have expressed support for anti-Israeli violence in the past, and the terrorist group Hamas is one of its offshoots. However, it seems fairly implausible that Hamas’s ideological origins, rather than its birth and development in Israeli-occupied Gaza, are the main cause of its hatred for Israel; that connection alone is not enough to justify fear of Egyptian Islamists. It seems unlikely that an Islamist-led Egyptian government would push for the abrogation of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the main act that could threaten Jerusalem. Egypt, unlike Gaza, is a well-established nation-state, and breaking a treaty that has held for 30 years would have political implications that all but the most radical Islamists could not ignore. Moreover, Egypt suffered preemptive attacks and loss of territory at Israeli hands during the two nations’ wars, so it has a real interest in keeping the peace. When coupled with the fact that the Brotherhood will probably not dominate a post-Mubarak government, these considerations suggest that many of the security concerns floated in the past 10 days have been overblown.

Those who fear that political change in Egypt will create an opening for the Brotherhood are on stronger ground when they point to the likely consequences of Islamist rule for Egyptians. Like Islamist political parties throughout the world, a Muslim Brotherhood active in democratic politics is likely to push for laws that enforce harsh religious rules at the expense of personal freedom and reduce the opportunities available to women. They may also make life worse for Egypt’s large Coptic Christian minority, whose main protection from the increased persecution in recent years has come from the aggressively secular Mubarak regime. While these are serious concerns, they must be kept in perspective. The hypothetical Islamist-led government we are considering would replace a regime that has produced so much human misery that hundreds of thousands of citizens are willing to spend days in the streets to remove it—and this regime is deploying thugs armed with Molotov cocktails against those citizens as I write. Furthermore, policies of the sort enumerated above are already present in Saudi Arabia, a prominent U.S. ally where non-Muslim houses of worship have long been banned and women are forbidden to leave their homes without a male relative.

These points are important because those who fear an Islamist takeover in Egypt often use the prospect to generate support for the current government or at least ambivalence about its overthrow. However, the preceding points show that the Muslim Brotherhood will probably not dominate a post-Mubarak Egypt. The most serious security risks observers point to are unlikely to materialize, and the consequences of Islamist rule for Egyptians do not differ substantially from policies that the U.S. has tolerated elsewhere when other concerns were at stake. While there may be good reasons to hope that Hosni Mubarak stays in power, concerns about Islamism are probably not among them.

Ajay Ravichandran is a third-year in the College majoring in Philosophy.