The Egyptian government is clearly attempting to portray the current revolt as the work of the Muslim Brotherhood, in an attempt to retain Western support. ‘It’s me or the Islamists’, Mubarak is in effect telling Western leaders. It’s worth reflecting, therefore, on how successive Egyptian regimes, like so many in the Arab world, have relied on Islamists to restrain popular revolt:
In June 1967 Arab armies from Egypt, Jordan and Syria were routed by Israel in the Six Day War. The greatest humiliation was heaped upon Egypt’s President Nasser, the figure most identified with the assault on Israel. The main beneficiary of Nasser’s fall from grace was the left. In February 1968 – three months before the famed événements in Paris – students and workers took to the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, in violent protest against what they regarded as the generals’ treachery. These protests grew in scope and ferocity over the next few years.
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, an organization that Nasser had savagely repressed and whose leader, Sayyid Qutb, he had executed in August 1966. Sadat released the Brothers and their associates from prison and encouraged them to organise against the left in the universities. ‘Sadat’s gamble’, Gilles Kepel observes, ‘was to encourage the emergence of an Islamist movement which he perceived as socially conservative.’ In exchange for allowing the ‘Islamist intelligentsia considerable cultural and ideological autonomy’, Sadat expected them ‘to hold the line against more radical groups whose goal was to subvert society.’ 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. In October 1981 he was assassinated 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’, 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.’
(From Fatwa to Jihad, pp96-97)
The crushing of radical secular forces 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 revolts so different, and so welcome, is that ordinary secular voices, repressed for so long by both religious and secular authorities, have finally broken out. This is also why Western governments have been equivocating over the protests – their real concern is not freedom but order. In the four countries that have so far seen mass protests – Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and the Yemen – Western powers have long supported brutal regimes for the sake of political stability. Now that those regimes, and that stability, are under threat, there is uncertainty and unease in Washington, London, Paris and Brussels.
I’m writing a longer essay on this which should be published next week.