There is a palpable fear in the West that the ousting of Hosni Mubarak will undermine regional stability and usher in a governing coalition that has Islamist tendencies.
Much of the fear is based on the relative strength of the Muslim Brotherhood and their long history of strong anti-Israel and anti-Western rhetoric. Right-wing pundits in the United States are comparing Egypt to pre-revolutionary Iran and are saying that Egypt is at the precipice of an Islamist takeover. There is an irrational fear that when elections take place the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge victorious and begin Egypt’s descent into a Shariah state.
Egypt, like Iran before the revolution, is the recipient of vast amounts of American military aid and is considered to be the strategic lynchpin of US foreign policy in the region. Like Iran, Egypt has a brutal and much maligned internal security service that often resorted to brutality to stifle dissent. Factors like income inequality, demographics and a yearning for greater freedom galvanized and rallied repressed populations to move in mass against their leaders. If analyzed this way, both revolutions appear to mirror each other, which feeds the narrative that revolutionary change will almost certainly lead to an Islamist government. However, this analysis is too simplistic and fails to account for the intricacies of each social movement. If one were to dig a little deeper, one would find that each movement is rather unique and that the factors that led to the foundation of the Islamist Republic of Iran are not present in Egypt.
Similar demands, different leaderships
While the protesters’ demands may be similar, the characteristics of the movements’ leadership could not be more different. The Egyptian movement was catalyzed by the events in Tunisia, while the 1979 Iranian Revolution was inspired by the demagoguery of Ayatollah Khomeini. Revolutions or broad-based social movements need a catalyst to galvanize revolutionary “free riders” -- would-be protesters that may sympathize with the cause but may not march in support over fears of reprisals.
In pre-revolution Iran, the free riders were inspired to march by Khomeini’s religious inspired audiotapes that were smuggled into Iran from Iraq and Paris. Most importantly, exiled Iranian clerics organized a hierarchical organization structure under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. They were able to do so because they had been banished from Iran and were far from the oppressive reach of the Sāzemān-e Ettela’āt va Amniyat-e Keshvar (SAVAK), the shah’s brutal secret police force. These political moves were a departure from traditional Shiite tradition, which believe that only the Hidden Imam has the political and religious authority to govern man and any other form of government is illegitimate. After the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini argued that religious leaders and the clergy had the authority to rule Iran and violently swept aside other factions of the Iranian revolutionary movement. Khomeini was able to do so because he had clearly established himself as the face of the revolution and could produce thousands of protesters from his broad base of supporters.
In contrast, Egyptian Sunni’s do not have a similar organization that can consolidate its political power and galvanize an entire population to protest on its behalf and there is no demagogue who has cast himself as the movement’s leader. Unlike the Iranian Shiites, Egyptian Sunni’s do not believe in hierarchical religious order and don’t have an upper class of spiritual leaders that people obey. This translates into a diffuse social network that bears little resemblance to the hierarchical and tightly controlled revolutionary movement in Iran.
From an organizational standpoint, comparisons to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood also fail to account for the differences in each movement. The Brotherhood has certainly endeared itself to a large percentage of Egypt’s society through its network of health clinics, schools, mosques and other social service institutions. It is widely believed that the 20-25 percent of Egyptians support the Brotherhood. If elections were to be held, the Brotherhood would win a large number of parliamentary seats, but it would almost certainly have to govern with a coalition partner. Meaning that the Brotherhood would have to take into account the wants and demands of the other political parties representing the other 75 percent of Egypt’s population.
Once elected the Brotherhood would have to circumnavigate what is surely to be a heterogeneous mixture of competing ideologies and political parties in Egypt’s new parliament. History has shown that once elected, political parties espousing radical platforms while campaigning are forced to make legislative compromises when in power. Moreover, the comparisons also don’t take into account the difference in Egyptian and Iranian economic situations. Egypt is much more integrated in the world economy than Iran was in 1979 and, unlike Iran, cannot rely on oil revenues to subsidize its economy.
Looking at the merchant class
Politically, Egypt’s future will have to take into account the demands of the politically connected and influential Bazari, or merchant class. Pre-revolution Iranian Bazaris were targeted by the shah and subjected to harsh treatment, while in Egypt they have been encouraged economically since President Anwar Sadat’s intifah (opening) economic policy. In pre-revolution Iran the Bazaris were keen on Khomeini’s message because he represented an opportunity to increase profits. In Egypt, the Bazaris have long benefited from Egypt’s close relationship with the West and have been actively seeking private manufacturing and industrial partnerships with foreign companies. It is extremely unlikely that these people will support a political party that advocates any sweeping policy change that may impact their economic gains.
Moving forward, any ruling political party will have to maintain good relations with this class of people. Rationally, any ruling party will seek to balance relations with the West, against the demands of more hard-line members of the electorate. This will likely lead to a much more independent Egypt that acts in its own self-interest politically and economically in the region. The end game could result in a coalition government that takes a harsher stance against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and American foreign policy in public, but quietly seeks to maintain the status quo to ensure economic growth and Western investment.
There is a dominant narrative that has taken hold amongst American and Western conservatives about the dangers and the pitfalls of an Egyptian election. However, the revolutionary, social, religious and political dynamics in Egypt will not result in the coronation of a new Islamic government in the Middle East.
*Published in Turkey's TODAY'S ZAMAN on March 1.