How can Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak be eased out of office without causing too much turmoil, or without providing a political opportunity for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood? That’s the question with which many Western leaders are now grappling. The growing consensus seems to be that what Egypt needs is, in the words of Hillary Clinton, an ‘ordered transition’ to a post-Mubarak Egypt and that vice-president Omar Suleiman is the man to manage this.
The idea of an ‘ordered transition’ that could depose Mubarak without unnecessary violence and turmoil would seem to be something to be unreservedly welcomed. Yet we should be skeptical about the proposals being drawn up in Washington, London and Brussels – not least because they are being drawn up in Washington, London and Brussels and not in Cairo.
The question that the idea of ‘ordered transition’ raises is this: for whose benefit is the revolt now taking on the streets of Cairo? For the benefit of Western nations? Or for that of the people of Egypt? For the two do not necessarily coincide. Indeed, it is precisely because these interests do not always coincide that millions have had to take to the streets of Cairo, Suez and elsewhere over the past few weeks.
For thirty years, Mubarak’s brutally dictatorial regime has received unstinting support, not to mention fat pay cheques, from European and American governments. Western leaders were willing to overlook Mubarak’s refusal hold free elections, his banning of all political parties and his savagely repressive police state because he was able to deliver ‘stability’, keeping in check radical movements, both secular and Islamic, maintaining peace with Israel and helping America pursue its Middle East peace policy. Barack Obama flatly rejected last year the claim that Mubarak was an ‘authoritarian ruler’, dismissing such talk as merely ‘criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt’, and saying of the Egyptian leader that ‘He has been a stalwart ally’ and ‘a force for stability.’
Even after the protests started, Western leaders continued to back Mubarak as the best means of bringing change. As Tony Blair put it in a CNN interview last week, Mubarak remains ‘immensely courageous and a force for good.’
It is the desire for stability rather than democracy that has led Western leaders to put their faith in Omar Suleiman. A former, and much feared, intelligence chief, Suleiman has long been the main conduit between the Mubarak regime and successive US administrations. He was the CIA’s point man in Cairo, organizing the Egyptian end of the US policy of extraordinary rendition, under which the CIA would snatch terror suspects from around the world and take them to Egypt and other countries for interrogation and torture. Edward Walker, a former US Ambassador to Egypt, described Suleiman as ‘very realistic’, adding that he ‘was not squeamish’ about torture. When someone like Suleiman thinks of ‘ordered change’, democracy is the last thing on his mind.
The demand for orderly transition is rooted ostensibly in the fear that post-Mubarak power, a vacuum may lead to the Muslim Brotherhood taking power. Yet America has a long history of dealing with the Brotherhood when it suits. According to American historian Ian Johnson, in the 1950s and 1960s the CIA gave funds and support to Muslim Brotherhood leader Said Ramadan (father of controversial Swiss Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan), and helped him take over mosques, because he was seen as a good anti-communist asset. And in the wake of 9/11, Johnson writes, the ‘Bush administration devised a strategy to establish close relations with Muslim groups in Europe that were ideologically close to the Brotherhood, figuring that it could be an interlocutor in dealing with more radical groups’.
Egyptian leaders have followed a similar strategy, having both ruthlessly suppressed Islamists and covertly (and sometimes overtly) embraced them as a means of containing radical secular movements. In the 1950s and 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser imprisoned thousands of Brotherhood members and executed its leading figure, Sayyid Qtub. In the 1970s Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat, came to a rapprochement with the Brotherhood, releasing their members from prison and encouraging them to organise against the left, which he regarded as his true enemy, only to be assassinated by an Islamist in 1981.
Sadat’s successor Mubarak has maintained this policy of repression and cooperation, banning the organization, imprisoning many of its leaders, but also tolerating its covert existence, and unleashing it against secular radicals when necessary. The consequence of all this has been to strengthen the Brotherhood, especially as the one space Mubarak cannot successfully police is the mosque. ‘If people met in a cafe and talked about things the regime didn’t like, [Mubarak] would just shut down the cafe and arrest us’, observed newspaper editor and human rights activist Hisham Kaseem in the New York Times. ‘But you can’t close mosques.’ Mosques have, therefore, become centres of political activism, and Islam the language of opposition.
And yet, while Islam may have strong roots in Egyptian society, so does liberalism. From the late nineteenth century onwards there have been strong movements in support of secularism and modernity. It was into this spirit that Nasser tapped, despite the dictatorial character of his rule. And it is out of this spirit that the current revolt draws much of its strength.
Egypt also has a strong tradition of working class movements. In 1977, in the last popular revolt as large as the current one, trade unions put millions on the streets when Sadat withdrew bread subsidies. And even after decades of repression, the labour movement still possesses bite. ‘Since 1998’, the historian Joel Beinin observes, ‘there has been a rising wave of strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations and other actions by workers’ in which ‘over two million workers have participated in more than 3,000 collective actions’.
The current revolt has been largely spontaneous, with little formal leadership or political organization from either the Islamists or the left. That has been both its strength and its weakness. It may allow the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains the most organized of the opposition movements, to influence affairs in the coming weeks. Yet, precisely because the Brotherhood has a fear of the popular will, it also has a poor record of being able to seize moments such as this. It has been as blindsided by the tumult in Tahrir Square as Cairo and Washington have. It initially opposed the revolt, only supporting it after it became clear it could not be suppressed, and is now playing a game of catch up.
The real fear of many of the protestors is not that the Islamists will sweep to power in the political vacuum following the overthrow of Mubarak and lead Egypt into theocracy, but that Omar Suleiman and the Muslim Brotherhood will between them stitch up a deal, under Washington’s watchful eye, that cuts out the protestors’ more radical demands in the name of ‘ordered transition’; a deal that allows the military, which has effectively run the country since Nasser’s army coup in 1952, to continue to govern behind the scenes. Given the record of all the parties involved – the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and America – and given, too, the $1.3bn aid the Egyptian military receives from Washington, such fear is not unfounded. The real danger, as Fareed Zakaria, editor-at-large at Time magazine, has put it, is not the Egypt becomes another Iran but that it becomes another Pakistan ‘a sham democracy with real power held in back rooms by generals.’
Most people would hope for a transition to a democratic Egypt with as little violence and bloodshed as possible. But it is not up to politicians in Washington, London or Brussels, to dictate how orderly that transition should be, or what should be the outcome at the end. It is up to the people of Egypt to do so. And if they are prevented from making that decision, that is when we may see the real violence, bloodshed and disorder.