Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times,/
What temper at the prospect did not wake/To happiness unthought of?/ The inert
Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!
So wrote the English poet William Wordsworth about the French Revolution; so feel many Arabs at this moment of apparent long-awaited revolution in some of the Arabic-speaking and dictatorship-ruled states of the Middle East. But Wordsworth’s enthusiasm soon evaporated with the Great Terror of the French Revolution and its aggressive policies that led to a quarter-century of war. Only a century later did a stable French republic actually emerge.
This kind of concern and pessimism may not be what people want to hear — and it certainly isn’t what they are hearing from “experts” and mass media — but policymakers and publics better start thinking seriously along such lines.
Consider recent precedents in this regard:
1. Iranian revolution, 1978-1979: Mass protests by a wide coalition against dictatorship. Result? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now president.
2. Beirut Spring: Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Druze unite against Syrian control. Moderate government gains power. Result? Hezbollah is now running Lebanon.
3. Palestinians have free elections: Voters protest against corrupt regime. Result? Hamas is now running the Gaza Strip.
4. Algeria holds free elections: Voters back moderate Islamist group. Result? Military coup; Islamists turn (or reveal their true thinking) radical; tens of thousands of people killed.
But what do Egyptians really think? According to a recent Pew poll, they are extremely radical even in comparison to Jordan or Lebanon. When asked whether they preferred “Islamists” or “modernizers,” the score was 59% to 27% in favor of the Islamists. In addition, 20 percent said they liked al-Qaeda; 30 percent, Hezbollah; 49 percent, Hamas. And this was at a time that their government daily propagandized against these groups.
How about religious views? Egyptian Muslims said the following: 82 percent want adulterers punished with stoning; 77 percent want robbers to be whipped and have their hands amputated; 84 percent favor the death penalty for any Muslim who changes his religion.
In a democracy, of course, these views are going to be expressed by how people vote. Even if Egypt does not have an Islamist government, it might well end up with a radical regime that caters to these attitudes and incites violence abroad.
There are reasons not to expect Egypt to turn into a moderate, stable, and democratic state: There are few forces favoring this outcome; the rebellion has no organization; Egypt doesn’t have the resources to raise living standards and distribute wealth; extremist ideologies are deeply held and widely spread.
There are basically three possibilities for the outcome:
First, the establishment and army stick together, get rid of Mubarak, but preserve the regime. The changes put in charge a former Air Force commander (the same job Mubarak once held) and the intelligence chief. The elite stays united, toughs it out, does a skillful combination of coopting and repressing the demonstrations, and offering some populist reforms. The old regime continues. In that case, it is only a minor adjustment.
Disgusted with the Mubaraks — Hosni’s stubborn refusal to step down; his son Gamal’s disgraceful cowardice, showing he fully deserved his insulting nickname “the boy” — the regime throws them overboard.
Second, the elite loses its nerve and fragments, in part demoralized by a lack of Western — especially U.S. — support. The Muslim Brotherhood throws its full weight behind the rebellion. Soldiers refuse to fire at or join the opposition. Eventually, a radical regime emerges, with the Muslim Brotherhood as either ruler or power behind the throne. Remember that the “moderate democratic” leaders have been largely radical and willing to work with the Brotherhood. In that case, it is a fundamental transformation.
The new regime turns against the West, tears up the peace treaty with Israel (in practice if not formally), and joins hands with Hamas. Iranian influence isn’t important with this regime, but that will be small comfort as it launches its own subversive efforts and even goes to war against Israel at some point in the future. This will be the biggest disaster for the region and the West since the Iranian revolution 30 years ago. And in some ways it will be worse.
Third and least likely, neither side backs down bringing bloody civil war.
Absolutely critical here is the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision. Should it be cautious or decide that the moment for revolution has arrived? The choice is not clear because if it picks wrong it could be destroyed. Have no doubt, though, that the Brotherhood is the only non-government group with disciplined followers, real organization, and mass support. In an election where it was harassed, repressed, and cheated — thus undercounting its support — the Brotherhood officially received 20 percent of the vote.
The regime’s survival is by no means impossible, but if that is going to happen it is going to have to mobilize quickly. Meanwhile, the same U.S. policymakers who stood by as enemy Iran crushed democratic protestors is pushing too hard on a friendly Egyptian regime to make big concessions.
To paraphrase Wordsworth, with the inert roused it might be the entire Western position in the Middle East that is swept away, and one dictatorship might be replaced by — unimaginable today — a worse one. I hope this analysis is wrong; I fear that it is accurate.