It’s all over but the shouting. The Muslim Brotherhood is going to dominate the political life of Egypt at least for the next few years.
That’s the result of the referendum vote that took place on March 19. Voters approved by a wide margin — 77 percent — a plan for the country to elect a new parliament and a new president by September. Aside from the largely discredited National Democratic Party (NDP) associated with the Mubarak regime (whose headquarters were demolished during the Jan. 25 revolution), the only organization with the capacity to run a nation-wide campaign is the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood’s political skills should not be discounted. In the weeks prior to the referendum, the organization told Egyptians that a yes vote was a vote for God and that a vote against it was a vote for Satan. To make matters worse, voters were told that a vote against the referendum was a sign that one was a Christian, and therefore, not fully loyal to Egypt. Given the hostility directed at Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, the message was clear — the only people who voted against the referendum were enemies of Egypt and ultimately, of Islam itself.
In a country where more than 65 percent of the population is illiterate, and where according to researchers supported by the Pew Charitable Trust, more than 80 percent of the people support the death penalty for people who leave Islam, such a message resonated and will continue to do so.
Whether they like it or not, Western leaders need to consider what kind of relationship they will have with Egypt under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood. Initially, this control may be exercised through a front-man chosen for his ability to placate Western fears of an Islamist regime, but the reality will be undeniable. Egypt will be controlled by Islamists. Women will be oppressed and Christians will be beleaguered even more than they are now.
This is a terrible thing. Just recently, Egypt’s military rulers forced a Christian to reconcile with Salafi Muslims (who embrace a version of Islam even more inhumane by the one embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood) who cut off one of his ears. El Ahram, the state newspaper, defended the forced reconciliation because the attack had “no sectarian dimension.”
This does not mean that Egypt’s Islamist regime will abrogate its treaty with Israel and start a war with the West immediately. Mohammed Hassan, a Salafi cleric, recently declared: “It’s not wise to start talking about such a treaty while we are trying to build a country and invite more enemies.” For the short term, the regime will regard the Camp David Treaty Anwar Sadat signed in 1979 as a cease-fire and consolidate its gains. It will continue to take money from the U.S. and provide support to extremists throughout the world, just as Iran has.
As bad as this sounds, there is hope.
If Western leaders move quickly, they can stymie the Islamists in Egypt. They can do this by promoting economic development in the country and by supporting Egyptian intellectuals who oppose the mistreatment of women and the subjugation of Egypt’s Christian minority. These were the people who were at the forefront of the Jan. 25 revolution. They were able to start a revolution, but they need Western help to prevent its hijacking.
In the short term, Western leaders need to speak up forcefully on behalf of these intellectuals and minorities, just as they spoke up for dissidents in the former Soviet Union. If Western heads of state were to do this, it would terrify the theocrats intent on turning Egypt into an iron furnace of suffering for its women and Christians.
In the long term, Western leaders must promote economic development in Egypt. This will not be done by hand-outs or bribes but through shrewd investments and accountability. Paying an annual ransom to the Egyptian military to abide by the Camp David Treaty failed to bring about the transformation needed to prevent an Islamist takeover.
Western leaders must invest not in military hardware, but in Egypt’s nascent civil society, which is clearly under threat.
There is no guarantee of success for such a venture, but given what’s at stake, it’s a gamble worth taking.