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Did Islamism Win Egypt’s Revolution?

It's not all Facebook and flowers.

by
Barry Rubin

Bio

March 23, 2011 - 12:00 am
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The world’s eyes focused on Egypt’s dramatic revolution. Yet incredibly, the media, government intelligence agencies, and experts haven’t answered a simple question: Who made the revolution and what were their motives and aims?

We have been repeatedly assured that the forces that began and led the upheaval were young, liberal, pro-democratic, technically hip people. Their organizational framework was the April 6 Youth Movement.

The movement’s leadership appears to be a small group of independent people and participants with no structure. These leaders and the main activists seem to be genuinely moderate — in Egyptian political terms — and supporters of democracy.

However, whenever one can identify organized groups participating in this revolution they fall into three categories: left-wing radical Marxists or nationalists, reformists allied at the time to the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamists. Since it began, the April 6 movement itself has worked closely with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The evidence for this assertion comes from simply analyzing the history of the April 6 Youth Movement. It started as a Facebook support group for a 2008 workers’ strike. By the following year, the group claimed to have a network linking 70,000 people. It is not clear who these people were but it is hard to believe that they all “joined” one at a time, as individuals with no other organizational affiliation.

Egyptian politics and Arab politics in general are often based on linkages that make strange bedfellows in Western terms. The neo-Marxist left contains strong Islamist and nationalist elements, as well as powerful anti-Western and anti-Israel sentiments. Islamists, precisely because they want to centralize power in the state, have socialist overtones. And people who seem liberal reformers often hold views quite distant from those of Western counterparts.

It is amusing that right-wing conspiracy theorists in the United States and Middle East have leaped on a Wikileaks document showing that one member of the April 6 Youth Movement attended a State Department seminar in the United States as “proof” that the U.S. government was behind the revolution. At the same time, though, the far larger-scale involvement of leftist activists in the movement and demonstrations is ignored, while that of revolutionary Islamists is minimized or explained away as harmless.

Other than backing a labor strike, the two specific issues on which the April 6 Youth Movement was active were support for bloggers being persecuted by the government and for ending sanctions on the Gaza Strip.

Helping Gazans is a popular cause in Egypt. Yet the political implications of that stance are revealing. The Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas, a radical Islamist group that brutally suppresses internal dissent.

Whatever the intentions — often portrayed as humanitarian — a campaign to end Egyptian sanctions on Gaza was helping to entrench Hamas’s dictatorship and making it possible to smuggle in more arms for use in attacking Israel. It also sought to help the Muslim Brotherhood’s number-one foreign ally to become stronger.

This activity — rather than a domestic issue or helping the repressed people of Sudan, Syria, or Saudi Arabia — was one of the movement’s two top priorities. This, too, is revealing of the participants’ politics.

Aside from well-meaning, hi-tech independents, the April 6 Movement was helped — or, if you wish, infiltrated — by four groups. Tagammu is Egypt’s leftist party, with strong Marxist overtones. Three other organizations have their origins in apparently liberal groups. These are the al-Ghad party, led by former opposition presidential candidate Ayman Nour; the Kifaya movement; and the National Association for Change, led by Muhammad ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Nobel Peace Prize winner, and presidential candidate.

Despite its liberal origins, by the time it allied with the April 6 Movement, Kifaya was largely taken over by the Brotherhood. Its origin was in a radical nationalist and leftist movement against the U.S.-led attack on Iraq in 2003 (defending, by default, the Saddam Hussein regime). It reached its peak in 2005, though deep divisions among its Marxist, leftist, Arab nationalist, Islamist, and secular liberal members were tearing it apart. In 2006, trying to build its base through populist demagoguery — and avoid repression by the Mubarak regime — the group switched to focusing on anti-Israel agitation, including a demand to abrogate the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

Some of Kifaya’s own members, “deep inside, are against democracy and reform,” said Bahaa al-Din Hassan, director of Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies at the time. In 2007 the group’s leader became Abdel Wahhab al-Messiri, a former Communist and Muslim Brother, as well as one of the country’s leading antisemites, a  purveyor of Jewish conspiracy theories based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

While itself liberal reformist, ElBaradei’s National Association for Change was a small group largely dependent on the Brotherhood for organizational support and vote-getting activity.

Despite all their ideological differences — left-wing, nationalist, liberal, or Islamist — all four of the groups associated with the April 6 Youth Movement had as one of their top-priority issues the goal of ending the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

But there is also an additional factor. Knowing that any direct association with the Brotherhood would discredit it in the eyes of many, the April 6 Youth Movement had an understanding with the Brotherhood. The two would cooperate and exchange information but the Brotherhood would not become too directly involved in the movement.

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