The spread of the contagion of protest across North Africa, from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, has not just been exhilarating. It has also given the lie to one of the great myths about the Muslim world - the belief that people in Muslim countries have a different mindset to those in the West, that democracy and secularism are ‘Western’ concepts alien to the political culture of Egypt or Jordan or Sudan. What the men and women in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have been demanding is not an Islamic state, but a more open, democratic society, with freedom of expression and the protection of individual liberties.
For many, however, the worry remains that the fall of Hosni Mubarak will lead not to a secular, democratic Egypt but to one in thrall to the Muslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist group founded in 1928 in response to the break-up of the Caliphate, and for which the restoration of that Caliphate is a key aim; the fear, in other words, that Egypt in 2011 could go the way of Iran in 1979.
The outcome of change – especially change as dramatic and anarchic as in Egypt – can never be certain. It could be that the Muslim Brotherhood grasps the reins of power in a post-Mubarak Egypt. But if it does, it is as likely to have been because of the bad faith of secular politicians as of popular support for Islamists.
The real story of the last 30 years is not of the triumph of Islamism – Islamists have rarely won a mass following and there has been no second Iranian revolution - but rather of the naivety and cynicism of secular politicians, both in Muslim countries and in the West, creating opportunities for religious bigots. Again and again, secular politicians have first brutally suppressed religious groups, inflaming popular opinion, and then turned to such groups to hold more radical opponents at bay, so providing them with new influence and authority.
Take Egypt. Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in an army coup in 1952, established a secular republic and savagely repressed the Muslim Brotherhood, executing its leader Sayyid Qtub in August 1966. A year later, Arab armies were routed by Israel in the Six Day War. Nasser was humiliated and faced bitter opposition, not from Islamists, but radical secularists, who took to the streets in violent protest.
Fearing the radicals more than the Islamists, Anwar Sadat, who became president after Nasser’s death in 1970, came to a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood. He released their members from prison and encouraged them to organise against the left in the universities. The Islamists certainly held secular militants in check. But Sadat was unable to do the same with radical Islamists who now flourished in the spaces from which nationalists and radicals had been forced out. In the end Sadat paid the ultimate price, assassinated in October 1981 by members of Islamic Jihad – a group that he himself had encouraged - during a military parade in Cairo.
This has been a common story over the past thirty years. Secular governments unleash the dogs of militant religion to keep in check left-wing radicals, believing that the dogs could be tethered again after they have done their job – only to be savaged themselves by the beasts they have let loose. ‘By making concession after concession in the moral and cultural domains’, the French sociologist Giles Kepel writes, governments in Muslim countries ‘gradually created a reactionary climate of “re-Islamization”. They sacrificed lay intellectuals, writers, and other “Westernized elites” to the tender mercies of bigoted clerics, in the hope that the latter, in return, would endorse their own stranglehold on the organs of state.’
After Sadat’s assassination, Hosni Mubarak took over as Egypt’s strongman. During his 30-year long brutal dictatorial rule, there have been deep tensions between the secular and the religious authorities, tensions that have often broken out into open and sometimes violent conflict. Nevertheless there has also been recognition by both sides of their mutual dependence. The Egyptian government has needed not just a police state but also a viable Islamist opposition to keep secular radicals in check. The Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned, but in practice tolerated. Its candidates are allowed to stand in elections as independents and now form the largest opposition group in Parliament. The Islamists, in turn, have used the repressive policies of the government to promote themselves as the only legitimate oppositional voice. They have created a substantial welfare infrastructure that provides education and health care for a people failed by the state. But the Islamists, as much as the government, despise and fear popular power and democratic institutions.
This story is not unique to Egypt. Jordan, Morocco, the Yemen – a similar relationship between religious and secular authority has developed across much of the Muslim world. The cynicism of secular politicians in Muslim countries has been matched only by the cynicism of Western policy. Western governments have been concerned primarily not with promoting freedom but with maintaining stability. Where Islamists have threatened that stability or have challenged Western interests, then Western governments have been happy to see them brutally suppressed, even when they have came to power through the ballot box, as happened in Algeria in 1991. But where fundamentalists have played a useful part in maintaining social order and in keeping popular aspirations in check, the West has been more than happy to support them.
The crushing of radical secular movements is one of the reasons that in recent years opposition protests in Egypt have been led mainly by the Muslim Brotherhood. Until now, that is. What makes the current protests so different is that ordinary secular voices, repressed for so long by both religious and secular authorities, have finally broken out. The revolt reveals a democratic spirit that neither brutality nor bigotry has been able to crush.
The Muslim Brotherhood has not organized the current protests. Indeed, it initially opposed them, joining in only once it was clear they could not be suppressed. But if anything could strengthen its power, it would be any attempt Western powers to thwart that democratic spirit, either by allowing remnants of the old regime to cling to power or by denying Islamists their democratic rights. How ironic it would be if fear of the Muslim Brotherhood should lead to policies that enhance both its moral authority and its claim to power.
Western politicians have talked incessantly about the need for 'stability'. It’s time we recognised that the effervescence of popular democracy, and of an open, secular society, is something to be cherished far more than the stability of authoritarian rule, whether secular or religious.