Welcoming the Brothers, wary of theocracy

One reason why history doesn't necessarily repeat itself is that people are aware of what happened the last time around. Western commentaries on the Egyptian uprising are full of dire warnings that Egypt 2011 will likely turn out like Russia 1917 or Iran 1979 -- a radical party which considers itself the vanguard of a far-reaching revolution will shove aside its liberal democratic allies and take advantage of the power vacuum to establish an autocracy much worse than the outgoing one. The Muslim Brothers are usually cast in the role of the Leninists or Khomeinists. To all the myriad factors which have been cited in response, for example...

  • the failure of the Mubarak regime to collapse and leave a power vacuum
  • the strong consensus in the anti-Mubarak movement behind democratic constitutionalist demands
  • the Brothers' three decades of involvement in constitutional parliamentary politics
  • the Brothers' caution and their prioritization of institutional survival
  • the experience of Egypt's judiciary, press, and opposition in monitoring elections and the rotation of power
  • an economy based not on oil, which enables radical policies, but on tourism, which discourages them

...I'd like to focus on a factor that was pretty strongly in evidence on my last visit to Tahir before departing Egypt: the Egyptian anti-Mubarak movement appears to be just as wary of a Brother-led takeover as the West.

Demonstrators were at pains to say that the Brothers are neither the main force behind the protests, nor will they be the main beneficiaries. Certainly, many appreciate the role that the Brothers have played -- as regime assaults transformed the square atmosphere from street carnival to besieged fortress, the movement's famous discipline and talent for organization come in handy manning the lines of ID checkers looking out for regime provocateurs, running makeshift clinics, and, most likely, in street fighting. One protester (a trader) in the square on Friday, Feb 4, rather colorfully called them "a card in the hands of the people to be played against any unjust authority," but insisted that they would never wish to hold power themselves. He seemed to be echoing a statement made by Brother Mohammed al-Baltagi earlier that day to al-Jazeera, that the movement was seeking neither the presidency. Other demonstrators have declared that they want "freedom... not religious government," that movement is "Not partisan, not Brotherly, but Egyptian", etc. I don't think that this is a line that is just being fed to me as a foreign journalist. There are quite a few Egyptian constituencies which are extremely leary of the Brothers coming to power -- Christians, secularists, anyone whose livelihood depends on tourism, the officer corps.

You may have your own opinion about whether or not the Brothers are sincere. The movement has sent some very mixed signals in the past, with some senior leaders talking praising civic rights and pluralism while others seem attached to a more theocratic vision. One interpretation, which I share, is that the Brothers are a big-tent organization with numerous factions, whose appeal owes more to its historical pedigree and organizational talent than a specific hardline ideology. However, you may also believe them to nurse a radical ideology, while putting forward a more moderate face to the rest of the world.

It doesn't matter. For an organization to constantly declare itself harmless, sincerely or insincerely, significantly complicates the strategies by which a vanguard movement can seize power in the aftermath of a coup.

The Khomeinists in Iran, for example, took a leading role in organizing the mass anti-Shah protests to begin with: it was leftists and liberals jumping aboard their bandwagon, not the other way around. Protesters as early as 1978 explicitly demanded Islamic government, and Khomeini as their leader. Thus, when the ayatollah returned from exile, he was the natural leader of the revolution, rather than a hijacker. The Bolsheviks did seize power in a putsch, but only after they had thoroughly discredited the transitional government of Alexander Kerensky and won the loyalty of many military units by pushing a radical alternative: promising to end Russia's ruinous involvement in World War I, pledging land reform, and demonstrating contempt for constitutional democracy by demanding "all power to the Soviets." For whatever reason, there was a market for revolutionary vanguardism in Russia and Iran which does not exist in Egypt. Neither the "natural leader" nor the "radical alternative" strategies are going to be easy for an organization which feels itself under constant pressure to stay in the background and act innocuous.

This does not exhaust the scenarios by which the Brothers could take power in Egypt, assuming that they even want to do so in the first place. However, when a regime suffers such a catastrophic loss of legitimacy as has Mubarak government, there are no guarantees at all. Every faction is going to be tempted to grab some legitimacy by offering populist policies -- be they economic, social, or foreign -- that might not be in the country's long-term interest. Egypt's military presidents in particular in particular have shown themselves prone to some pretty drastic changes of policy in the last sixty years.

It's legitimate to worry about which factions might come out ahead in the months of political jockeying that lie ahead. But it's equally important to be concerned that the principles like the rotation of power and judicial oversight gain legitimacy, so that any future government which flaunts them faces and immediate popular backlash. The more that Egypt's ongoing democratic constitutionalist uprising can accomplish, the stronger Egyptian constitutional democracy will be in the future.