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Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Jagdish N. Singh: Can the West prevent Egypt from becoming another Iran?

[Dr. Aaron Lerner - IMRA: With no one knowing who or what will be in charge
in Egypt in the coming months - let alone years (ditto for Jordan) - there
are still retreat promoters pushing for Israel to enter immediately into a
"land for piece of paper" deal that no doubt relies on cooperation - and
perhaps even the active participation of representative forces - of Egypt
and Jordan.]

Halting the Egyptian Drift
by Jagdish N. Singh
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 145, June 19, 2011

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Developments in post-Mubarak Egypt are beginning to
mirror the process of Islamization that took place in Iran following the
1979 revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood is gaining support, while
progressive forces – those that hoped to bring democracy to Egypt – have
fallen silent. It may be up to a third party to prevent Egypt from becoming
the next Iran.

One wonders if Egypt today is on the road to becoming another post-Shah
Iran. After the fall of the Shah the 1970s, Iran's progressive forces became
passive, leaving the great Persian civilization at the mercy of far more
anti-democratic elements than the regime they had fought against. The
pattern developing in Egypt in the wake of the "Arab Spring" looks more or
less similar. With the fall of the relatively modern Mubarak regime,
anti-social and anti-modern elements, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, are
gaining strength and popularity.

A case in point: Egyptian Islamic theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi was welcomed
back to Egypt after a 50-year hiatus and a 30-year ban from leading weekly
Friday prayers. Best known for his program ash-Shariah wal-Hayat ("Shariah
and Life"), broadcast on Al Jazeera and Islam Online, Qaradawi has long
played a prominent role within the intellectual and spiritual leadership of
the Brotherhood. His obscurantist philosophy, support of terrorism, and
advocacy for killing the Jews have been judged so harmful – socially,
economically and culturally – that countries such as the US and the UK have
prohibited him from entering. Even many Muslim academics in Saudi Arabia,
Iraq and the Palestinian territories have condemned him for giving sacred
Islam “a bad name.”

Since the Muslim Brotherhood is now the single largest political group in
Egypt, with an estimated 600,000 members, all other groups that matter in
the country's politics have started rallying behind it to secure their
eventual share of the national power cake. The Brotherhood was initially
part of the Coalition of Young Revolutionaries, which led the protests
against President Mubarak at Tahrir Square. However, after toppling the
dictatorship, the more progressive members of this revolutionary alliance –
the Qatar-based Academy of Change, former International Atomic Energy Agency
Chief Mohamed El-Baradei and his associates, Egyptian women activists,
etc. – have become marginalized, now playing second fiddle to the rising
Islamist group.

Consequently, those who, until recently, praised the fallen Mubarak have
suddenly aligned themselves with the Brotherhood. One such example is Sheikh
Ahmad Mohamed al-Tayeb, the Imam of the al-Azhar Mosque – one of the most
important Sunni religious centers. Sounding like a radical jihadist, Tayeb
recently branded the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden an act of
American "piracy" and called his burial at sea a "moral crime" that was
"against Islamic law." He has also asserted that the main cause of terrorism
is Israel's existence and actions as well as Western countries’ attempts to
"dominate the Arab world." Such statements are likely to help the
Brotherhood garner critical Sunni support in Egypt's upcoming parliamentary

Another individual who appears to have joined the Brotherhood bandwagon is
former Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa. Various reports suggest that
Moussa and the Brotherhood have reached an understanding whereby the
Brotherhood will not field a candidate against Moussa in the elections,
enabling him to win the presidency. In return, Moussa will rubber-stamp all
legislation passed by the Brotherhood bloc (perhaps a majority bloc) in

The Muslim Brotherhood’s work towards creating an Islamic state in Egypt
closely resembles Ayatollah Khomeini's overhaul of the Iranian political
system post-1979 Revolution. The Brotherhood shares a common ideology with
the Iranian clergy – to promote Islam not just as a religion but as a belief
system governing all aspects of political, economic and social life.

There is genuine concern that once the Brotherhood manages to establish
itself within the country's political system, persecution of both Muslim and
non-Muslim minorities will grow. There have been, of late, increased attacks
on the Copts – a Christian sect that makes up roughly 10 percent of the
Egyptian population – by Islamic extremists. While previously subjected to
persecution of various kinds, they have begun to feel far more frightened in
the post-Mubarak era.

The Supreme Council of Armed Forces, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein
Tantawi, could play a critical role in halting the Brotherhood's momentum.
Because of its relatively modernist nature and orientation, it already holds
the trust and goodwill of the country's silent masses. The Council could use
this type of platform for combating the lack of democracy and development
that has caused the recent unrest in Egypt.

Currently the de facto ruler until parliamentary elections are held, the
Council should take advantage of its position to promote progressive
leadership based on pluralism, non-violence and democracy. Simultaneously,
the Council could make serious efforts to improve the country’s social

According to a recent Moshe Dayan Center study, the population of Egypt (83
million in 2009) is growing by about 1.8% a year and that of working age by
2.2%. But there has been little employment generation. Some 40% of its
population today earns an income of $2 per day or less. Over 87% of Egyptian
households have an annual income of less than $1,000. The inflation rate in
2010 increased by 12% and food prices specifically rose by 20%. Hundreds of
thousands are living in graveyards and in other substandard accommodations.
Furthermore, the current regime has not invested properly in education, with
over 30% of its adult population being illiterate.

Social reform efforts could give a significant boost to the strength and
popularity of genuine progressive democratic forces in Egypt. Given its
strategic and economic interests in the region, the West could join the
efforts of the Egyptian Council by invoking some kind of Marshall Plan, such
as that which was adopted by the US in 1947-1951 to assist the rebuilding
and economic regeneration efforts in war-torn Europe.

However, given that anti-Western attitudes run very strong in the Arab world
in general and Egypt in particular, outsiders will have to be very careful
when planning any such economic stimulus so that it indeed benefits the
have-nots in Egypt. Aid that is not properly monitored will only benefit the
corrupt and alienate the public, and provide anti-democratic forces with
ammunition for a takeover.

But, alas, we must also humbly take note: The ability of Westerners to
influence domestic outcomes in the Arab world is ultimately quite limited.

Jagdish N. Singh is a senior Indian journalist based in New Delhi.

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