A million marching in the streets of Cairo this Tuesday, a million more marching towards the Egyptian presidential palace in Heliopolis in the upcoming “Friday of Departure”. The top graffiti – also scrawled on khaki-colored US Abrams tanks – as well as the top slogan, remains “the people want the system to fall”. The army seems to have chosen its side, tacitly affirming it “will not resort to use of force against our great people”.
With Brent crude oil futures smashing the barrier of US\$100 a barrel for the first time since September 2008; mounting fears for the oil flow through the Suez Canal; banks, schools and the stock market closed; people’s committees running security; some police burning their uniforms and joining the protests; and rows of activists, protesters and bloggers tapping furiously at banks and banks of laptops to send the word (before the President Hosni Mubarak system “bravely” shut down the last functioning Internet service provider), the Egyptian revolution might be approaching the end game.
The Pharaoh and his “successor” Omar “the suave torturer” Suleiman’s strategy to use the army to intimidate, and then reclaim, the street could only work if the Nile turned blood red this week. That seems unlikely. Still this ruthless military dictatorship will do whatever it takes to cling to power.
As the multiform Egyptian street sees it, the point is not, as the Wall Street Journal so quaintly put it, “maybe the new phase is a happy one for Washington”. Those masses at Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) protesting with their lives couldn’t care less – as they couldn’t care less for the security of oil supplies to the West or the security of Israel. This is about Egypt, not America.
On Sunday, US President Barack Obama urged a meek “shift in Egypt’s administration” – while the streets are yelling “out with the dictator”. Al-Jazeera had to come out with an editorial reminding everyone that Obama’s definition of “reform” simply cannot mean the same corrupt/repressive regime with a facelift.
This is a classic revolutionary situation; those few on top cannot impose their will like they used to, those many below refuse to be dominated like they used to. Infinitely puzzled, Washington and European capitals may play at best minimalist background vocals to the sound and the fury in the street. The street wants a solid political and institutional life, and to be able to make a decent living in a less corrupt environment. And that has proved to be impossible under the immutable rules of the game – the “our” dictator system supported by the industrialized West.
Among silly conspiracy theories that the Egyptian revolution is being funded by the Jewish lobby, the US Central Intelligence Agency, American financier George Soros or all of the above, the Egyptian street couldn’t care less whether or not the Pharaoh decides to “lead an orderly transition”; they won’t settle for anything less than his one-way ticket, perhaps to embrace his friends in the House of Saud. Especially now that the street has seen how, with Suleiman, Mubarak is pulling a Shah of Iran in 1978, when he installed Shapour Bakhtiar as his prime minister (it didn’t work).
Talk to the Sphinx
The sensible way ahead points to an Egyptian civic alliance dominated by all the sectors opposed to the regime (virtually everyone in the country) and the inevitable component, the army. As much as sectors of the Washington establishment and US corporate media may have been frantically spinning it, there are no objective conditions for an Islamist takeover; this is just plain silly.
Washington may be about to give the green light to Mohamed ElBaradei – who has been crucially endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet not even the Sphinx in Giza knows whether this will be enough for the street.
ElBaradei is a credible outsider. During the Pharaoh’s hardcore years he was abroad. He is no pushover, and stoically stood his ground against the George W Bush administration as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency over Iran. ElBaradei, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, may in fact emerge as the “bridge” before free and fair elections, a new constitution and a new order in Egypt.
But there’s no evidence he will concoct an economic policy much different from the usual International Monetary Fund-World Bank “structural adjustment” scam, with lots of dodgy privatizations mixed with that hazy Davos mantra, “good governance”. If that’s the case the street is bound to get really angry – again.
For the moment, there’s not much evidence that Egypt could go the way of Iran in 1979. The secular left was in charge of Iran’s post-revolutionary government (in Egypt, the left has been decimated by repression). Iran only became an Islamic republic months later, after a national referendum (were that to happen, Egyptians would overwhelmingly support a secular republic). The most probable, positive, scenario is that by 2012 Egypt may be closer, politically, to Turkey.
That leaves us the burning unanswered question to burn them all; what will be the post-revolutionary role of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)?
Brothers to the rescue
The MB elicits panic fear all across the West because the Mubarak regime always effectively equaled them to al-Qaeda. This is nonsense.
The MB was founded by Hasan al-Banna in the port of Ismailia in 1928 – then moved to Cairo. Its initial concern was to concentrate on social services, establishing mosques, schools and hospitals. Over these past decades, the MB managed to become the most important fundamentalist political force in the Sunni world. It’s also the largest dissident party in Egypt, with 88 seats of the 454 in the lower house of parliament.
The MB does not endorse violence – although it did in the past, until the 1970s. The aura of violence is mostly related to the legendary Sayyid Qutb, considered by many as the spiritual father of al-Qaeda. Qutb, a literary critic who had studied in the US, joined the MB in 1951, and split years later.
Qutb’s ideas were radically different from al-Banna’s – especially his concept of a “vanguard”, which is more Lenin than the Koran. He was convinced that parliamentary democracy was “a failure” in the Islamic world (unlike the overwhelming majority of Egyptians today, who are fighting for democracy; the MB, moreover, is a full participant of civil and political society.) Qutb does not even qualify as the most influential modern Islamist thinker; mainstream political Islam, personified by the authority of the imam of al-Azhar in Cairo, mercilessly refuted him.
Contrary to US neo-conservative propaganda, the MB also has nothing to do with fascist movements in 1930s Europe or socialist parties (they are in fact in favor of private property). It is above all an urban, lower middle class nativist movement, as defined by University of Michigan professor Juan Cole. Even before the revolution, the MB was committed to bring down the Mubarak regime, but peacefully and politically.
The Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1930s in Mosul, is now the Iraqi Islamic Party, and an important political actor who always had a dialogue with Washington. And in Afghanistan, the Jamiat-I Islami party was inspired by the MB.
The MB certainly does not shun technology and intellectual innovation.
It’s very much everywhere in the streets of the Egyptian revolution, but very careful not to display an “in your face” attitude. According to spokesperson Gamel Nasser, they see themselves only as a small sector of the revolution. And the revolution is about the future of Egypt – not Islam.
Some may argue once again this is what the mullahs were saying in Tehran in 1978/1979. The shah was indeed deposed by virtually all sectors of society, including the Communist Party. Then the theocrats took over – violently. According to its background over the past three decades, there’s no evidence the MB would have the reach to attempt the same move.
It’s hard for outsiders to imagine how brutal has been the Mubarak repression machine/police state. The system relies on 1.5 million police – that’s four times more people than the army. Their salaries are paid to a great extent by the annual \$1.3 billion of US “aid”, which also served to crack down really hard on the working class and virtually every progressive organization.
This state of things has been in place way before Mubarak. History will ask questions directly to the ghost of former president Anwar Sadat. Sadat built a trifecta to make his intifah policies work; the IMF advised him to build a rudimentary export economy, he manipulated religion to extract funds from Saudi Arabia and thus undercut the MB, and he got billions from the US for cutting a deal with Israel. The key inevitable consequence of all this was a mammoth police state bent on, among other repressive gems, a total crack down on working class organizations.
Meet the antidote to al-Qaeda
Even also being ravaged during the Sadat/Mubarak decades, the MB at least kept a structure. In free and fair elections the MB would certainly get at least 30% of the votes.
Global corporate media could do worse than trek to the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, in El Malek El Saleh, and learn something. The new head of the MB, Mohammed Badie, is more concerned with the social than the political arena. On the possibility of Egypt eventually becoming an Islamic state, he insists the decision will be “by the people”.
Unlike Badie, Sherif Abul Magd, an engineer professor at Helwan University and the head of MB in Giza, was much more loquacious talking to Italian daily La Stampa. He was careful to point out that the protesters should not antagonize the military. He emphasized, “Our people already control the streets.”
Above all he delineated the MB strategy for the next stage; to an interim prime minister should be added five judges to set up a presidential committee charged of rewriting the constitution and then calling for elections for parliament and the presidency.
Magd was adamant: “An Islamic state is not in conflict with democracy – but the people should be able to choose it.” Washington already knows it, but will be alarmed anyway that the MB does not believe in that famous geopolitical cadaver – the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; “peace is impossible without a deal with Hamas.” As for al-Qaeda, “today it is just a CIA invention to justify the war on terror.”
The Arab street knows – and largely approves of – the fact that the MB has always opposed the 1978 Camp David accords, and does not recognize Israel. Strategically, the MB has realized it’s counter-productive to project itself now; later it’s another story. The crucial point is that the MB is adamantly opposed to violence against civilians – and thus resolutely dismisses al-Qaeda. An MB refuting violence and very active in civil politics in Egypt cannot possibly spook the West. As an established party of political Islam, the MB could not be a better antidote to al-Qaeda style fanatics.
Contrary to alarmist rightwing sirens, there’s no “Islamic fervor” enveloping the Middle East. On the contrary – what one finds at the moment is plenty of moral turpitude, on top of it on the wrong side of history.
Israel’s position is self-explanatory – from the Jerusalem Post describing the Egyptian revolution as “the worst disaster since Iran’s revolution” to a columnist in Ha’aretz newspaper blaring that Obama betrayed “a moderate Egyptian president who remained loyal to the United States, promoted stability and encouraged moderation”.?
As for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he phoned Mubarak to say how sorry he is for all this mess; and then ordered his goons to stop Palestinians demonstrating their support for democracy in Egypt.
There’s no question – with the MB as part of an Egyptian government, a really sovereign Egyptian government, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt will be renegotiated (the MB favors a referendum). And so we reach the heart of the matter. After this revolution, US and Israeli interests cannot possibly converge – even as optical illusion.
This is not an anti-American revolution; it’s a revolution against an American-supported regime. A legitimate, sovereign, post-Mubarak government cannot possibly be a Washington puppet – with all the regional implications that entails. And that goes way beyond the MB. This is about the millenarian heart of the Arab world possibly on the verge of a dramatic seismic shift.