CRISIS IN EGYPT
The Brotherhood factor
By Pepe Escobar
A million marching in the streets of Cairo this Tuesday, a million more
marching towards the Egyptian presidential palace in Heliopolis in the upcoming
"Friday of Departure". The top graffiti - also scrawled on khaki-colored US
Abrams tanks - as well as the top slogan, remains "the people want the system
to fall". The army seems to have chosen its side, tacitly affirming it "will
not resort to use of force against our great people".
With Brent crude oil futures smashing the barrier of US$100 a barrel for the
first time since September 2008; mounting fears for
the oil flow through the Suez Canal; banks, schools and the stock market
closed; people's committees running security; some police burning their
uniforms and joining the protests; and rows of activists, protesters and
bloggers tapping furiously at banks and banks of laptops to send the word
(before the President Hosni Mubarak system "bravely" shut down the last
functioning Internet service provider), the Egyptian revolution might be
approaching the end game.
The Pharaoh and his "successor" Omar "the suave torturer" Suleiman's strategy
to use the army to intimidate, and then reclaim, the street could only work if
the Nile turned blood red this week. That seems unlikely. Still this ruthless
military dictatorship will do whatever it takes to cling to power.
As the multiform Egyptian street sees it, the point is not, as the Wall Street
Journal so quaintly put it, "maybe the new phase is a happy one for
Washington". Those masses at Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) protesting with
their lives couldn't care less - as they couldn't care less for the security of
oil supplies to the West or the security of Israel. This is about Egypt, not
On Sunday, US President Barack Obama urged a meek "shift in Egypt's
administration" - while the streets are yelling "out with the dictator".
Al-Jazeera had to come out with an editorial reminding everyone that Obama's
definition of "reform" simply cannot mean the same corrupt/repressive regime
with a facelift.
This is a classic revolutionary situation; those few on top cannot impose their
will like they used to, those many below refuse to be dominated like they used
to. Infinitely puzzled, Washington and European capitals may play at best
minimalist background vocals to the sound and the fury in the street. The
street wants a solid political and institutional life, and to be able to make a
decent living in a less corrupt environment. And that has proved to be
impossible under the immutable rules of the game - the "our" dictator system
supported by the industrialized West.
Among silly conspiracy theories that the Egyptian revolution is being funded by
the Jewish lobby, the US Central Intelligence Agency, American financier George
Soros or all of the above, the Egyptian street couldn't care less whether or
not the Pharaoh decides to "lead an orderly transition"; they won't settle for
anything less than his one-way ticket, perhaps to embrace his friends in the
House of Saud. Especially now that the street has seen how, with Suleiman,
Mubarak is pulling a Shah of Iran in 1978, when he installed Shapour Bakhtiar
as his prime minister (it didn't work).
Talk to the Sphinx
The sensible way ahead points to an Egyptian civic alliance dominated by all
the sectors opposed to the regime (virtually everyone in the country) and the
inevitable component, the army. As much as sectors of the Washington
establishment and US corporate media may have been frantically spinning it,
there are no objective conditions for an Islamist takeover; this is just plain
Washington may be about to give the green light to Mohamed ElBaradei - who has
been crucially endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet not even the Sphinx in
Giza knows whether this will be enough for the street.
ElBaradei is a credible outsider. During the Pharaoh's hardcore years he was
abroad. He is no pushover, and stoically stood his ground against the George W
Bush administration as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency over
Iran. ElBaradei, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, may in fact emerge as
the "bridge" before free and fair elections, a new constitution and a new order
But there's no evidence he will concoct an economic policy much different from
the usual International Monetary Fund-World Bank "structural adjustment" scam,
with lots of dodgy privatizations mixed with that hazy Davos mantra, "good
governance". If that's the case the street is bound to get really angry -
For the moment, there's not much evidence that Egypt could go the way of Iran
in 1979. The secular left was in charge of Iran's post-revolutionary government
(in Egypt, the left has been decimated by repression). Iran only became an
Islamic republic months later, after a national referendum (were that to
happen, Egyptians would overwhelmingly support a secular republic). The most
probable, positive, scenario is that by 2012 Egypt may be closer, politically,
That leaves us the burning unanswered question to burn them all; what will be
the post-revolutionary role of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)?
Brothers to the rescue
The MB elicits panic fear all across the West because the Mubarak regime always
effectively equaled them to al-Qaeda. This is nonsense.
The MB was founded by Hasan al-Banna in the port of Ismailia in 1928 - then
moved to Cairo. Its initial concern was to concentrate on social services,
establishing mosques, schools and hospitals. Over these past decades, the MB
managed to become the most important fundamentalist political force in the
Sunni world. It's also the largest dissident party in Egypt, with 88 seats of
the 454 in the lower house of parliament.
The MB does not endorse violence - although it did in the past, until the
1970s. The aura of violence is mostly related to the legendary Sayyid Qutb,
considered by many as the spiritual father of al-Qaeda. Qutb, a literary critic
who had studied in the US, joined the MB in 1951, and split years later.
Qutb's ideas were radically different from al-Banna's - especially his concept
of a "vanguard", which is more Lenin than the Koran. He was convinced that
parliamentary democracy was "a failure" in the Islamic world (unlike the
overwhelming majority of Egyptians today, who are fighting for democracy; the
MB, moreover, is a full participant of civil and political society.) Qutb does
not even qualify as the most influential modern Islamist thinker; mainstream
political Islam, personified by the authority of the imam of al-Azhar in Cairo,
mercilessly refuted him.
Contrary to US neo-conservative propaganda, the MB also has nothing to do with
fascist movements in 1930s Europe or socialist parties (they are in fact in
favor of private property). It is above all an urban, lower middle class
nativist movement, as defined by University of Michigan professor Juan Cole.
Even before the revolution, the MB was committed to bring down the Mubarak
regime, but peacefully and politically.
The Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1930s in Mosul, is now the Iraqi
Islamic Party, and an important political actor who always had a dialogue with
Washington. And in Afghanistan, the Jamiat-I Islami party was inspired by the
The MB certainly does not shun technology and intellectual innovation.
It's very much everywhere in the streets of the Egyptian revolution, but very
careful not to display an "in your face" attitude. According to spokesperson
Gamel Nasser, they see themselves only as a small sector of the revolution. And
the revolution is about the future of Egypt - not Islam.
Some may argue once again this is what the mullahs were saying in Tehran in
1978/1979. The shah was indeed deposed by virtually all sectors of society,
including the Communist Party. Then the theocrats took over - violently.
According to its background over the past three decades, there's no evidence
the MB would have the reach to attempt the same move.
It's hard for outsiders to imagine how brutal has been the Mubarak repression
machine/police state. The system relies on 1.5 million police - that's four
times more people than the army. Their salaries are paid to a great extent by
the annual $1.3 billion of US "aid", which also served to crack down really
hard on the working class and virtually every progressive organization.
This state of things has been in place way before Mubarak. History will ask
questions directly to the ghost of former president Anwar Sadat. Sadat built a
trifecta to make his intifah policies work; the IMF advised him to build a
rudimentary export economy, he manipulated religion to extract funds from Saudi
Arabia and thus undercut the MB, and he got billions from the US for cutting a
deal with Israel. The key inevitable consequence of all this was a mammoth
police state bent on, among other repressive gems, a total crack down on
working class organizations.
Meet the antidote to al-Qaeda
Even also being ravaged during the Sadat/Mubarak decades, the MB at least kept
a structure. In free and fair elections the MB would certainly get at least 30%
of the votes.
Global corporate media could do worse than trek to the headquarters of the
Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, in El Malek El Saleh, and learn something. The new
head of the MB, Mohammed Badie, is more concerned with the social than the
political arena. On the possibility of Egypt eventually becoming an Islamic
state, he insists the decision will be "by the people".
Unlike Badie, Sherif Abul Magd, an engineer professor at Helwan University and
the head of MB in Giza, was much more loquacious talking to Italian daily La
Stampa. He was careful to point out that the protesters should not antagonize
the military. He emphasized, "Our people already control the streets."
Above all he delineated the MB strategy for the next stage; to an interim prime
minister should be added five judges to set up a presidential committee charged
of rewriting the constitution and then calling for elections for parliament and
Magd was adamant: "An Islamic state is not in conflict with democracy - but the
people should be able to choose it." Washington already knows it, but will be
alarmed anyway that the MB does not believe in that famous geopolitical cadaver
- the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; "peace is impossible without a deal
with Hamas." As for al-Qaeda, "today it is just a CIA invention to justify the
war on terror."
The Arab street knows - and largely approves of - the fact that the MB has
always opposed the 1978 Camp David accords, and does not recognize Israel.
Strategically, the MB has realized it's counter-productive to project itself
now; later it's another story. The crucial point is that the MB is adamantly
opposed to violence against civilians - and thus resolutely dismisses al-Qaeda.
An MB refuting violence and very active in civil politics in Egypt cannot
possibly spook the West. As an established party of political Islam, the MB
could not be a better antidote to al-Qaeda style fanatics.
Contrary to alarmist rightwing sirens, there's no "Islamic fervor" enveloping
the Middle East. On the contrary - what one finds at the moment is plenty of
moral turpitude, on top of it on the wrong side of history.
Israel's position is self-explanatory - from the Jerusalem Post describing the
Egyptian revolution as "the worst disaster since Iran's revolution" to a
columnist in Ha'aretz newspaper blaring that Obama betrayed "a moderate
Egyptian president who remained loyal to the United States, promoted stability
and encouraged moderation".?
As for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he phoned Mubarak to say
how sorry he is for all this mess; and then ordered his goons to stop
Palestinians demonstrating their support for democracy in Egypt.
There's no question - with the MB as part of an Egyptian government, a really
sovereign Egyptian government, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt will
be renegotiated (the MB favors a referendum). And so we reach the heart of the
matter. After this revolution, US and Israeli interests cannot possibly
converge - even as optical illusion.
This is not an anti-American revolution; it's a revolution against an
American-supported regime. A legitimate, sovereign, post-Mubarak government
cannot possibly be a Washington puppet - with all the regional implications
that entails. And that goes way beyond the MB. This is about the millenarian
heart of the Arab world possibly on the verge of a dramatic seismic shift.