The fall of Hosni Mubarak came as a complete surprise to experts and policymakers. Why did the shadowy leading figures in Egypt’s political-military establishment, men who have profited handsomely from Mubarak’s three decades in power, risk their own power and privilege by pulling the plug on him?
As Cairo returned to its chaotic daily routine, the answer became clear: What happened on February 11 was not a “revolution” at all, but a military coup. There was no regime change like in Iran in 1979, or in Eastern Europe a decade later, or in Tunisia in January. Egypt’s regime was never in real danger. At their peak, the protests in Tahrir Square and all other hot spots around the country gathered fewer than one percent of Egypt’s 83 million people. The crowds were disproportionately middle-class and nonviolent, unlike the 1977 bread rioters. The protesters’ demands focused on corruption, police repression, and democratic reforms, but their seething anger was aimed at Mubarak personally. His departure was their main demand. This suited Egypt’s top brass, which remained in complete control throughout the crisis. Mubarak had to go because the generals decided that he had become a liability to the regime’s viability. Paradoxically, the regime itself is now stronger.
A year short of six decades ago, the army brought down King Farouk, and it has never left the stage. All three presidents since then—Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak—were military officers whose decisions reflected the consensus of the officer corps. That consensus evolved over the years—from Nasser’s fiery pan-Arabism to Sadat’s spectacular U-turn in the late 1970’s to Mubarak’s bland managerialism—but it was not challenged until Mubarak started grooming his 47-year-old son, Gamal, a civilian, for succession last year. Mubarak’s old loyalists were horrified; younger senior ranks were enraged. The issue had not escalated to the point where the officers would have acted against Mubarak even without the protests, but it made them happy to use the protests as a pretext for removing him.
The military council that replaced Mubarak has abolished the constitution, dissolved parliament, promised a new constitution to be ratified by referendum, and says it will prepare the ground for parliamentary and presidential elections within six months. Six months is a long time in politics, however, and it is hardly imaginable that the generals intend to keep these promises. The Egyptian army is a secular, neo-Kemalist institution, well aware that its Turkish counterpart has been neutered by democratically elected hard-line Islamists, to the thunderous applause of the self-deluded West. The generals know that the Muslim Brotherhood is the best organized political force capable of supplanting the regime and the only group with deep popular roots. Its strength was manifested when its candidates were allowed to run as individuals in the 2005 legislative elections. They were able to compete for one fifth of the seats and won all of them.
That outcome reflected the attitudes of ordinary Egyptians more accurately than the sound bites of fluent English speakers in Tahrir Square. According to the 2010 Pew Research Center report Egypt, Democracy and Islam, 84 percent of Egyptians favor the death penalty for Muslims who leave their religion. When asked whether they prefer modernizers or Islamic fundamentalists, 59 percent chose the fundamentalists, while only 27 percent picked the modernizers; 54 percent believe suicide bombing is justified under certain conditions. Remarkably, 82 percent supported stoning for those who commit adultery. Over four fifths of Egyptians hold an unfavorable view of the United States, more than their counterparts in Pakistan or Jordan.
The claim that the Brotherhood is “moderate” is attractive to the Western liberal mind, but it is absurd. The generals know the score: It is a hard-line group with a simple credo: Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. It was founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna as a revivalist movement explicitly opposed to the ascendancy of secular reformism. An Ikhwani tried to assassinate Nasser in 1954, and four others succeeded in killing Sadat in September 1981. The Brotherhood has branches in every traditionally Muslim country and elsewhere, including the United States. They all share the same goal: the introduction of sharia and the establishment of a worldwide caliphate.
The biggest potential headache for the Egyptian military may prove to be the Obama White House. The signs of trouble were evident in June 2009, when President Barack Obama came to Cairo to deliver his much-heralded “speech to the Muslim world.” It was a strange performance, full of nonsense about Islam’s alleged compatibility with Western-style democracy. More significantly, a dozen members of the Muslim Brotherhood were invited to attend the speech. This happened at the insistence of the State Department, which acted on Obama’s specific orders, and in spite of the host government’s misgivings. The Egyptians were presented with a destabilizing fait accompli. In the run-up to the Egyptian parliamentary election last fall, the Obama administration pressed Mubarak to allow a greater participation of opposition groups, the Brotherhood included. And finally, during last winter’s protests, Washington veered between support for “democracy” come what may and advocating an “orderly transition.”
The Obama administration’s ad hoc decisions are based on flawed assumptions. “The Egyptian people want freedom, they want free and fair elections, they want a representative government,” Obama declared on February 13. Downplaying concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood could install a government hostile to U.S. interests, he described it as just “one faction in Egypt” devoid of majority support:
[T]here are a whole bunch of secular folks in Egypt, there are a whole bunch of educators and civil society in Egypt that wants [sic] to come to the fore as well. And so it’s important for us not the [sic] say that our only two options are either the Muslim Brotherhood or a suppressed Egyptian people. . . . What I want is a representative government in Egypt. And I have confidence that if Egypt moves in an orderly transition process, that we’ll have a government in Egypt that we can work with together as a partner.
Such wishful thinking suits the strategy of the Brotherhood. That strategy is based on a clear precedent: In 1979 Khomeini’s followers forged a tactical alliance with the reformist opponents of the shah, only to eliminate them once the job was done. The process was completed in 1981 when Khomeini’s former ally and Iran’s first president, Abulhassan Banisadr, was impeached and had to flee the country. Being “Stalinist” rather than “Trotskyite,” the Brotherhood will present a moderate and reasonable face in the months to come and thus seek to encourage Obama’s demands for Egypt’s democratic transformation.
Obama’s behavior indicates the extent to which he shares ideological roots with his predecessor. President George W. Bush declared in 2005 that establishing peace and democracy throughout the greater Middle East was the key to stability: “if that region grows in democracy and prosperity and hope, the terrorist movement will lose its sponsors, lose its recruits, and lose the festering grievances that keep terrorists in business.”
This claim has been repeated over the past few months by a legion of editorialists and talking heads. But the democratic transformation of the Middle East, as it is today, is unattainable in practice and undesirable in principle; democracy cannot exist outside of the framework of ideas that sustain it. These ideas, in the case of the West, are rooted in the history of the polis of Greece, the Scriptures, the heresy of the Enlightenment, the notion of liberty, individual responsibility that rests on individual free will, and the collective creativity embodied in the rendering of symphonies and the launching of space missions.
The United States should support the generals in their efforts to maintain the regime. That regime has served the interests of successive U.S. administrations well. Its peace treaty with Israel was the foundation for promising U.S. initiatives in Madrid and Oslo (1991) and Camp David (2000). The U.S. Navy has enjoyed privileged access to the Suez Canal, and the Pentagon has staged elaborate war games in Egypt’s deserts. Egypt was an active participant in the first Iraq war in 1991 and a silent American partner in its 2003 sequel. It has provided nonlethal support for the “Allied” effort in Afghanistan. It has shared antiterrorist intelligence with U.S. agencies at all levels of classification. Unlike Saudi Arabia it has been a true ally, one of the few we have in the Arab world. America has a record of being unreliable to her foreign friends—the shah and Ngo Dinh Diem come to mind—and Egypt’s generals are old enough to remember the winter of 1979. Obama’s pressure on them to play by Queensbury rules would play right into the hands of America’s enemies.
The unrest in Egypt has already given heart to Islamic radicals all over the region. Iran has long regarded Egypt as a major obstacle to her establishment of regional hegemony. Turkey’s ruling Islamists rightly see the regime in Cairo as a local equivalent of the Kemalist old guard, which they have successfully neutralized over the past nine years. Last but not least, Hamas—a Brotherhood branch long hostile to Mubarak—hopes to see the blockade on Gaza’s western border lifted. If that happens Israel will retrench behind her fortified boundaries, and Netanyahu’s position will be enhanced. “The peace process,” always elusive and currently almost nonexistent, will become structurally impossible.
For the greater part of the 20th century Cairo led the way in the intellectual quest for an authentically Arab response to the challenge of modernity. The generals should be given a chance to continue that quest by incremental reforms. If they fail, the Brotherhood will win and duly condemn as rebellion against Allah’s supremacy the submission to any form of law other than sharia. Egypt’s political and military establishment should prevent that outcome regardless of Barack Obama’s expectations and advice. By maintaining the regime’s continuity and ensuring that the February 11 coup does not lead to a real revolution, they will serve the interest of their country as well as the American interest.