Should America fear a democratic Egypt?

Osama Diab

The depiction of as a country of religious fanatics who await a breeze of freedom to turn Egypt into a radical regime is far from accurate.

14 January 2010

A senior leader Abdel Moniem Aboul Fotouh, who is known for his moderation, recently said that the party is not as popular as people think.

“If there was a real partisan life in Egypt and the wheel of started turning and election were held without fraud, the Brotherhood won't come to power and won't get more than 25% of the seats and not 90% like some people think. Egypt is not just the Muslim Brotherhood,” Aboul Fotouh told al-Shorouk newspaper.

This comes in stark contrast to how the Islamist group is typically viewed in the media, especially the Western media, as the most powerful political alternative to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). It is a little ironic how the media thinks the Brotherhood is more powerful than some of its members, such as Aboul Fotouh, do.

The conviction that the Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt's most serious and organised opposition movement is relatively new and is closely linked to their 2005 parliamentary success. The Brotherhood managed to win 20% of the seats.

This took place just a few months after former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice openly embarrassed the regime's undemocratic practices. “Throughout the Middle East, the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty,” Rice said. “It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy.”

But it wasn't long before the US feared democracy in Egypt and backed away. A foreign policy article published this year commenting on Bush's push for democracy in Egypt stated, “For a brief moment, the policy seemed to be showing results […] Unfortunately, as the deteriorating situation in Iraq drew away its attention, and when produced results that were not to its liking, the Bush administration essentially gave up on democracy in Egypt in 2006.”

Many political analysts believe that the Brotherhood was ‘allowed' to win that many seats. The regime perhaps wanted to send an indirect message to the Bush administration implying that it's either us or them (in this case, the Brotherhood). A fifth of the seats in parliament was the price Egypt was willing to pay in order to pass on the message.

For the same reason, Egypt's government never ‘allowed' a similar scenario to happen to liberal secular political parties that showed signs of popularity and could be to America's liking. Ayman Nour, a popular liberal opposition figure that seemed like a favorable option to the Bush Administration, was thrown into jail for challenging Mubarak and achieving a considerable success as Mubarak's runner up in the 2005 elections.

The Brotherhood might not be really as popular as the media make us believe and is just used by the current regime to delay calls for democracy in Egypt. Studies and research on the popularity of political groups are usually conducted to serve political goals. Therefore, there are no reliable figures on how well-liked political groups really are. But there are signs, other than Aboul Fotouh's statement, that it is not a foregone conclusion that the Brotherhood will sweep up the votes if offered the opportunity to run in a fair election.

Now that the talk about who will succeed President is more heated than ever, opposition groups have been trying to suggest qualified names to run for presidency. The point is to counter the belief of some that Egypt has no competent alternatives for the top seat outside the Mubarak family.

All the names suggested to rival the NDP's candidate in the 2011 presidential elections did not include a single Islamist, which implies that even if some people are sympathetic toIslamist politicians, they don't necessarily trust their ability to take control of the top job. Some might argue that the Brotherhood decided not to offer a candidate, but most of the suggested name never expressed willingness to compete either.

Also, in a poll carried out by Zogbi International, 58% of Egyptians considered their primary identity to be citizens of their country, while 20% said Arab was their primary identity. Only 17% defined their primary identity as Muslim and 5% fell under the “not sure” category. Out of the six countries surveyed, only Egypt and Lebanon did not tick “Muslim” as their primary identity.

Above all, Egyptians are also more often than not very proud of their pre-Islamic and ancient Egyptian history. In Egypt, the number of shops, products and companies named after ancient Egyptian figures, such as Cleopatra, Sphinx, Nefertiti and Ramsis is striking, including the Egyptian football team – the Pharaohs.

Moreover, many of Egypt's critical industries that contribute massively to the country's GDP and employ tens of millions have a liberal bent, and people dependent on them might not feel secure about the future of their livelihoods under Islamic rule.
Such industries include the media and tourism sectors. For example, the Egyptian tourism sector represents 11.3% of Egypt's GDP and 19.3%  of the total investment made in foreign currencies, according to the Egyptian tourism ministry.
Egypt also has a thriving banking sector that dates back to 1856. Egypt, along with South Africa, has the biggest and most advanced financial markets on the continent. The concept of riba (lending with interest) is traditionally prohibited in Islam, which makes the whole concept of banking and investment undesirable if not forbidden in some Islamic schools.

In addition to its modern economy with a thriving business sector and a large tourism industry, the country has also long been the regional centre of the arts, culture and the media, as well as a melting pot for people from many different cultures and backgrounds throughout its history. With all these factors and a significant religious minority, no one can claim with any certainty that Egyptians will embrace Islamic rule with arms wide open.

Published with the author's permission. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.


  • Osama Diab

    Osama Diab is an Egyptian-British journalist and blogger who lives between his two favourite metropolises: Cairo and London. He writes about the religious, social, political and human right issues of Egypt and the Middle East

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