Point • Counter-point: Crisis in Egypt
As with the Iranian Green Revolution protests that took place in Iran two years before, following a presidential election highly suspected of electoral fraud, many of us in the West have come out in support of the protestors in Egypt. Among those who enjoy the freedoms and rights of liberal democracies there is often a romantic idea of revolution. The French revolution and other historical revolutions come to mind.
I’m sorry to rain on your parade. It’s not that I don’t sympathize with those who have suffered under repressive autocratic and dictatorial regimes. As a person who greatly values his freedom I sincerely hope that Egypt goes down the path towards democracy.
But, a look at recent history and the sentiments of the Egyptians themselves suggests that it may be a little too naïve to have faith in this fairy tale story of revolution in this case.
In Iran, what started out as a genuine popular revolution in 1979 based on a broad coalition of all anti-Shah groups rapidly turned into an Islamic fundamentalist takeover. Ayatollah Khomeini, an aging cleric in his mid-70s who had never held public office, had been out of Iran for more than a decade. He expressed no desire to rule and was expected to only act as a spiritual guide.
Nonetheless, he capitalized on his popularity and his position as a religious figure and eventually suppressed the more liberal moderate religious and secular groups who did not support him.
What happened in Iran in 1979 is certainly possible in Egypt. The influence of Islam and Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt should not be overlooked. The Muslim Brotherhood holds the unique status of being the forefather of every Islamic fundamentalist group in the Middle East and abroad. And it is a group that still holds considerable sway in Egypt among large swaths of the population.
In the 2005 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood’s candidates won 88 seats or 20 per cent of the total vote, to form the largest opposition bloc, while the legally approved opposition parties only won 14 seats or barely three per cent of the total vote.
Even now, Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of International Atomic Energy and Egypt’s new opposition leader, has formed an alliance of sorts with the Brotherhood because he knows it is the only opposition group that can mobilize the masses.
This presents us with the distinct possibility that radical forces may take control like in Iran’s Islamic revolution. Muslims and Christians may be marching hand in hand now and did succeed in forcing Mubarak to step down, but the institutions of authoritarian rule are still in place with the military now wielding absolute power and the ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood still unknown.
Exchanging one dictator for another or even worse, a theocracy, is not progress.
But, let’s forget about politics for one second and look at the opinions of the Egyptians themselves. A recent Pew Poll, which surveyed the attitudes of Muslims in seven countries, may help shed some light on this issue.
Unsurprisingly, 85 per cent of Egyptian Muslims surveyed responded saying that Islam’s influence in politics is positive. Only two per cent thought it was negative.
Furthermore, the most striking findings were that over three-quarters of Muslims in Egypt said that they would favour making each of these the law in their country: stoning people who commit adultery (82 per cent), whippings and cutting off of hands for crimes like theft and robbery (77 per cent) and the death penalty for apostasy (84 per cent).
My more romantic counterparts may still point out that a clear majority (59 per cent) of Egyptian Muslims preferred democracy to any other type of government. But I don’t know what kind of democracy those kinds of beliefs could fit into. Simple elections do not make a liberal democracy.
My advice to those with a romantic idea of revolution is to not hold your breath for a liberal democratic system of government. Even the liberals and moderates within the movement don’t see it coming.
The naysayers have had a lot to say about Egypt. Some have called democracy incompatible with Islam. Others have suggested that the revolution is nothing more than a transition of power from President Mubarak to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the National Post, Lawrence Solomon argues that “democracy and Islamic fundamentalism cannot coexist — one places sovereignty in the people, the other in Allah.” He further asserts that “Westerners who adhere to the separation of Church and State and to the ends of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights — life, liberty and security of person — would be undermining their own goals by enabling a premature democratic rule in Egypt.”
First of all, the fear mongering being perpetrated by commentators (including those, not shockingly, on Fox News) about Islamic rule is at least somewhat unfounded. These protests were not uprisings of religious fundamentalism. They came from the youth of Egypt with secular undertones.
The Muslim Brotherhood did not start the protests nor do they lead them now.
Furthermore, to suggest that democracy is some kind of elitist club that will be damaged if unsavoury members join it reeks of arrogance and ignorance.
There is no perfect democracy. One need look no further to the so-called pinnacle of democracy in America where the separation of church and state is a lofty ideal that is so often undermined by the control of the religious right.
Egypt is on its own trajectory toward democracy — one started by the people and one where no one really knows where it is going to end up. But what we do know is that the Egypt of today looks completely different from a month ago, and will probably look quite different from the Egypt that will exist a month from now.
Regardless, the West owes it to the Middle East to support these protests and help facilitate democracy if that is what the Egyptian people truly want.
These next few months have the potential to be remarkably historic for the Middle East.
The commentators should stop trying to point out the obstacles as reasons why Egypt should not be supported by the West. When Bush invaded Iraq, the praise was lavished upon American troops bringing freedom to the Iraqi people. Bush advocated, like so many American presidents before him, for the spread of democracy at the hands of American power.
Yet what is happening in Egypt is not an American “victory” nor does it come through American military power.
It is an uprising of the people; a powerful and passionate call for a new state that respects a true democratic process.
For that, whether one believes it is sustainable or not, the Egyptian people deserve our full and unequivocal support.
The ramifications of this revolution in Egypt could be surprising. There are daily changes now in the situation in the Middle East. Very recently, several thousand protestors marched in the major squares in Iran.
The Egyptian protestors are truly heroic. To fight so determinedly for an ideal that has seen so many obstacles already and will no doubt see many more, is not only admirable but gutsy.
It speaks to the tenacity with which they seek a more just, equitable, and democratic state. Their determination ended the reign of a 30-year dictator and that was just the beginning of what these protestors are going to accomplish.