This yearning for freedom will not lead to theocracy
The fear that the Egyptian uprising will create ‘another Iran’ reveals the extent to which 1979 still haunts the Western imagination.
It is clear from the response to the uprising in Egypt that ‘the Iran moment’ continues to haunt the Western imagination.
The overthrow of the Shah of Iran in February 1979, followed by the emergence of a radical Islamic state, was one of the most significant global events of the late twentieth century. It caught Western governments and their diplomats unaware. The subsequent growth of political Islam, paralleled by the relative decline of Western influence in the Middle East and Asia, continues to dominate geopolitical thinking. It seems that whenever President Barack Obama or his secretary of state Hillary Clinton gets on the phone to one of their Middle East interlocutors, they can’t help but give a mini-lecture on the perils of a ‘new Iran’ emerging. Many in Washington look at Egypt and see 1979 happening all over again
And it isn’t only the leaders of the US who confuse the streets of Cairo with those of Tehran. Israeli politicians are also furious that the Obama administration has ‘abandoned’ Mubarak. Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has warned of the danger of extreme Islamic radicals throwing up another Khomeini and establishing another jihadist beach-head – only this time on the Suez Canal.
It is worth noting that President Mubarak and his cronies have been living off the ‘après moi, le déluge’ line for some time. Not for nothing has the Egyptian military been receiving an incredible $1.3 billion in aid from America every year. Until this week, in the name of holding back ‘another Iran’, Western leaders were willing to overlook the behaviour of the corrupt Mubarak regime. So during Egypt’s fraudulent elections last December, the leaders of the democratic world simply looked the other way.
Middle Eastern politics is very difficult to predict. But it is unlikely that Egypt will become another Iran. In fact it’s far more likely that Iran will become another Egypt. Over the past three decades the world has moved on from the heyday of the Khomeini regime. For a start, Iran itself is not the Iran of 1979. Although the protest movement that erupted following the 2009 presidential elections lacked the depth of support of its recent counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, it demonstrated that significant sections of Iranian society are hungry for reform.
Certainly the Egyptian people have little desire to establish a theocracy. As an expression of popular aspirations, Islamism provides a kind of grammar of meaning through which people can interpret their experiences. It provides people with a story about who is to blame for their predicament. Suspicion and even hatred of Israel and the US is part of that story. But such animus towards the usual targets of jihadist ideologues is not what is motivating the current resistance movement in Egypt. Indeed, observers of the protests have been struck by the relative lack of slogans expressing support for Palestine or opposition to ‘Evil America’.
Numerous reports tell us that the Egyptian protesters are self-consciously playing down the role of Islamist forces in the current uprising. No doubt the influential Muslim Brotherhood has adopted a low profile, and it may partly have done this for pragmatic reasons, in an attempt to reassure foreign interests that this isn’t an Iran-style revolution. Such a display of pragmatism suggests that, its past radical reputation notwithstanding, this is a movement that can be surprisingly moderate. But more importantly, the Muslim Brotherhood has been overtaken by events. It has exercised little influence over the uprising thus far.
The Muslim Brotherhood still has a significant power base among the urban poor in Cairo and Alexandria. And it would no doubt gain significant support if a free election was held in Egypt. But Islamist politics in Egypt is far more likely to resemble recent developments in Turkey than older developments in Iran.
Egypt is not Turkey, of course – but an Islamic-oriented government that wants to run a highly urban and relatively educated society cannot be indifferent to the more secular aspirations of its people. It is this synthesis of populist religious language with secular pragmatism that appears to be the main political dynamic at work in Egypt… at least for now. The outcome of the current protest movement cannot be predicted because it is also influenced by the reaction of the West – an external form of influence which, in the Middle East, has a formidable track record for turning problems into disasters. Egyptian events will also be determined by the response of the Egyptian military.
Protest without focus
It isn’t surprising that the current protest movement in Egypt lacks political clarity and definition. There was a time when Egypt was a home to Pan-Arabism. Under President Gamal Abdel Nasser (who ruled from 1956 to 1970) it opted for Arab Socialism. But since the 1970s, secular politics has become exhausted, which is why Islamism has succeeded in capturing the imagination of the dispossessed. However, Islamism works more as a cultural force than a political one. The influence of Islamism can obscure the fact that protest and resistance are often expressed in a surprisingly depoliticised form. People of course want freedom and real elections and a better standard of life. But they are also searching for a political language through which these demands can be coherently articulated.
The current uprising expresses people’s positive yearning for freedom and their deep revulsion for the status quo and for the Mubarak government in particular. However, the speedy emergence of such mass mobilisation is not simply a testament to the depth of popular support for change. The unravelling of the political order first in Tunisia and now in Egypt is also indicative of the fragility of that political order. The ruling elites in these societies are isolated; they possess no legitimacy. It is striking that over the past week there have been only very small, very occasional displays of support for the Mubarak regime. Even the beneficiaries of his regime have turned their back on him. The real holders of power, the generals, appear to have come to the conclusion that a military coup could create even more problems.
However, as long as the protest movement remains politically incoherent, there is a danger that getting rid of Mubarak would simply mean the perpetuation of the existing regime in a different form. Mubarak has announced that he will step down in September – but will his regime stay on, only in a different form? Such an outcome would intensify regional instability. Whatever occurs in the short run, it is clear that the post-Second World War order is about to unravel in the Middle East. Will this be an historic opportunity for the forces of democracy and freedom? Let’s keep watching this space.