Mass protests demanding democratic reform and freedom on the streets of Egypt — the Arab world’s most populous nation and one that holds tremendous political and cultural influence throughout the Middle East — left Washington unsure whether it should continue its support of an oppressive regime or stand for the values Americans cherish most. The U.S. government has an unprecedented opportunity to offer Reagan-esque support to an indigenous popular movement in the heart of the Arab world that could fundamentally change the political fabric of the region and secure America’s long-term goal of a free and democratic Middle East. The Obama administration’s response to the protests was shockingly slow and apprehensive, as was the response from other U.S. leaders on both sides of the aisle. The U.S. government must now act swiftly to embrace this unique opportunity and not let an exaggerated fear that militant Islamists might fill a void left by an ousted President Hosni Mubarak inhibit it from voicing support for the very principles on which America was founded.
President Mubarak has long attempted to convince the United States that the only alternative to his iron-fist autocracy is the Muslim Brotherhood. He has done this by silencing nearly all secular and moderate political opposition in the country by means of the Political Parties Law, which dates back to 1977 and allows a committee formed by representatives from Mubarak’s National Democratic Party to determine what other parties should receive a license to operate freely in Egypt. Historically, the regime has blocked the establishment of any political party that it deems a potential threat to its grip on power.
The only exception to this uniform political oppression has been Mubarak’s treatment of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak has routinely given the Brotherhood just enough leeway to hold demonstrations and run candidates in elections but then ordered violent crackdowns on the group whenever he felt it had over-stepped its bounds. Mubarak’s political manipulation has created the false perception that no moderate opposition exists in Egypt, and it has allowed him to successfully intimidate the United States into believing that should it abandon him, it will have to deal with a radical Islamist government controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Contrary to popular belief in the West, the Muslim Brotherhood is not a militant Islamist group with close ties to al Qaeda, and its active participation in Egyptian politics would not turn Egypt into a terrorist safe haven. In fact, Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s deputy leader, criticized the Brotherhood at length in 2008 for operating within the bounds of the Egyptian constitution and not “recognizing the authority of Shari’a.” Likewise, Al Fajr Media Center, the official network responsible for disseminating messages from al Qaeda factions, released an audio tape in August 2010 called “Manufacturing Terrorism” that stated the following: “The Muslim Brotherhood thinks that democracy is the path to take [for change], while jihadi groups believe the path is through jihad.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, in reality, is an Islamist social movement that represents a wide spectrum of political ideology. Many of its younger members advocate for a Western-style democracy and would likely welcome continued cooperation with the United States. Many of the Brotherhood’s “old guard,” however, adhere to a much more rigid interpretation of Islam and would likely shun close relations with the United States.
The possible ascension of the Brotherhood in the case of a Mubarak regime collapse should trigger the U.S. government to develop contingency plans to deal with the situation, but it should certainly not inhibit U.S. government officials from backing the masses that are calling for freedom and democracy. Most importantly, though, the likelihood of a radical Islamist regime taking power in Egypt is very slim.
The demonstrators on the Egyptian street right now represent every sector of Egyptian society. Coptic Christians, which make up about ten percent of the Egyptian population, initiated the first anti-government protests in Egypt this month after an Islamist terrorist used a car bomb to kill 21 Copts leaving a church in Alexandria, Egypt on New Year’s Day. The Copts blamed the government for failing to protect them and discriminating against the Christian minority. The popular protests in Tunisia that successfully drove President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali into exile later galvanized thousands in Egypt to take to the streets on January 25. Many of those early protestors came from backgrounds that generally eschew radical Islam: the educated, the youth, and the affluent. The Brotherhood did not openly call for its supporters to take to the streets until the fourth day of the protests, at which point the size of the protests already exceeded any Egypt has ever experienced. The people that initiated this mass uprising will just as ferociously oppose a radical Islamic government as they oppose an oppressive dictator.
Two other sectors of Egyptian society would also vigorously oppose the ascent of the Brotherhood to power: the military and the business community. The military has maintained loyal to the regime since the onset of the demonstrations, and Egypt’s new vice president, Omar Suleiman, will likely receive the same type of loyalty should Mubarak abdicate the office. Moreover, Egypt’s security forces have focused much of their attention over the past decade on suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and rooting out extremists on the Sinai Peninsula, making it unlikely that they would turn around and pledge fealty to the Brotherhood.
The business community will also likely leverage its influence to ensure that the Egyptian government does not fall into the hands of radical Islamists. Currently, tourism accounts for about eleven percent of Egypt’s GDP, which would inevitably drop significantly if the next government enforced rigid Islamic laws. Additionally, a trade deal between Egypt, Israel and the United States allows for products originating in specially designated “Qualified Industrial Zones” in Egypt to be exported to the United States free of tariffs if they contain an Israeli component. The value of exports from these zones reached nearly $1 billion in 2009, and Egypt’s industrial leaders would never tolerate a Brotherhood government that could potentially put that deal in jeopardy.
Unrealistic fears that radical Islamists could take control of Egypt in the wake of a Mubarak regime collapse may force the United States to miss a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the landscape of the Middle East in favor freedom and democracy. President Reagan proved that bold and inspiring words supporting the truths that Americans hold to be self-evident can alter the course of human history. President Obama should immediately, and without equivocation, voice America’s support for the rights that the Egyptian people are demanding. The U.S. State Department should offer its support in establishing a transitional government that repeals the Political Parties Law and Emergency Law and sets a date for elections to be held within the next 18 months so that the voice of mainstream Egypt can be heard. USAID, in conjunction with the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, should train local election monitors to help ensure the legitimacy of the next election.
Only a Middle East that affords citizens a say in their governments, provides economic opportunity for all, and rejects corruption will turn people away from extremism and thus help secure America’s long-term interests. A window of opportunity to facilitate that process has opened, but the U.S. must act now before it is too late.
Chris Harnisch is an al Qaeda analyst focusing primarily on Yemen and Somalia. He has briefed members of the House and the Senate on issues relating to Yemen and Somalia, and he has published articles on the Islamist threat in those countries in numerous publications. Chris served on the staff of Vice President Dick Cheney. He has lived and studied in Yemen and Egypt.