Sunday, January 30, 2011

Two myths about Egypt

Popular revolts against long-standing autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt have been breathtaking and exciting.  As I click through the television news and talk programs and talk to people about events there, I've come across what I think are two misconceptions or myths.

The first, drumbeat by Fox News and the right wing, is that the spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Ikwahn is a reactionary, anti-democratic movement, well-entrenched in Egyptian society.   Those pseudo-leftists like George Gallawoy who embrace or apologize for the Brotherood, are just that pseudo-leftists.

The Quillam, an anti-Islamist think tank in the UK, has a briefing paper on Egypt and Tunisia that makes some key points. (HT: The Spittoon)

Islamists do not have a monopoly on grassroots movements.
The ‘conventional wisdom’ that only the Muslim Brotherhood can organise grassroots opposition movements in the Middle East clearly needs re-thinking as does the idea that it is the ‘only real opposition’. While it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood is the most ‘organised’ formal opposition group in Egypt (and some other Middle Eastern countries but not in others such as Tunisia), advances in technology mean it can now be outmanoeuvred by spontaneous grassroots movements.

Islamist support may have been over-estimated.

The high levels of support for the Egyptian protests among ordinary people may indicate a larger than suspected groundswell of support for genuinely democratic, non-sectarian politics in the Middle East. The lack of vocal support among the protestors for standard Islamist slogans perhaps indicates that much of this apparent support for the Brotherhood was not ideologically-based but rather based on a shared opposition to the status quo for whom the Brotherhood was the only available outlet. This shows that Brotherhood claims to be the ‘only real opposition’ to dictatorial regimes in the Middle East should be viewed with a considerable amount of scepticism in future. Given the opportunity, many people in the Arab countries clearly prefer civil, nonsectarian parties over Islamists.

Rise of secular discourse.
 The basic demands of the Egyptian demonstrators for jobs, food and accountable government are both tangible and strikingly non-ideological. The Egyptian protests are also remarkable for the wide cross-section of society represented through them – civic, non-Islamist activism is not just popular among the elite but also among the masses. This is also a rebuff to those on the Right who believe that Muslim-majority  societies do not want or understand liberal secular democracy and also to those on the Left who argue given a free choice that Muslims will chose Islamism over pluralism and political freedom. Aside from Egypt, the unfolding events in Tunisia are also a challenge to supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who argue that Islamism is the only alternative to either Mubarak dictatorships or al-Qaeda. There is now another clearly option for the Middle East: genuine pluralist democracy.

The process is still ongoing.
Although the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt have so far been largely secularist and pro-democratic, and often deliberately excluding of Islamists, this may yet change. Although groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have been caught off-guard by the protests, they are looking for ways to re-gain the initiative in both Egypt and in Tunisia. Previously Islamists have tried to take over and usurp revolutions in Muslim-majority countries, doing this successfully in Iran in 1979 and unsuccessfully in Egypt in 1953. Although secularists in Egypt and Tunisia are clearly alert to this danger, this does not mean that Islamists will not try, perhaps with some success, to hijack these mass movements. Similarly, if secular democratic regimes are ultimately established in these countries, some Islamists groups may deliberately try to push them towards collapse (as Hezbollah has recently done in Lebanon) in order to ultimately take control of these states.
The briefing is available to download as a PDF here.
The second misconception over-simplifies the US alliance with the Mubarak regime and goes beyond the entirely valid criticisms that the US has been too close to the autocracy and has not done enough to support democracy.  It ends up with a one-dimensional picture.

The London Telegraph has an eye-opening story today detailing that the "American government secretly backed leading figures behind the Egyptian uprising who have been planning “regime change” for the past three years."

In a secret diplomatic dispatch, sent on December 30 2008, Margaret Scobey, the US Ambassador to Cairo, recorded that opposition groups had allegedly drawn up secret plans for “regime change” to take place before elections, scheduled for September this year.

The memo, which Ambassador Scobey sent to the US Secretary of State in Washington DC, was marked “confidential” and headed: “April 6 activist on his US visit and regime change in Egypt.”

It said the activist claimed “several opposition forces” had “agreed to support an unwritten plan for a transition to a parliamentary democracy, involving a weakened presidency and an empowered prime minister and parliament, before the scheduled 2011 presidential elections”. The embassy’s source said the plan was “so sensitive it cannot be written down”.

Ambassador Scobey questioned whether such an “unrealistic” plot could work, or ever even existed. However, the documents showed that the activist had been approached by US diplomats and received extensive support for his pro-democracy campaign from officials in Washington. The embassy helped the campaigner attend a “summit” for youth activists in New York, which was organised by the US State Department.

Cairo embassy officials warned Washington that the activist’s identity must be kept secret because he could face “retribution” when he returned to Egypt. He had already allegedly been tortured for three days by Egyptian state security after he was arrested for taking part in a protest some years earlier.

The protests in Egypt are being driven by the April 6 youth movement, a group on Facebook that has attracted mainly young and educated members opposed to Mr Mubarak. The group has about 70,000 members and uses social networking sites to orchestrate protests and report on their activities.

The documents released by WikiLeaks reveal US Embassy officials were in regular contact with the activist throughout 2008 and 2009, considering him one of their most reliable sources for information about human rights abuses.

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