A colleague wrote me the following thoughts:
“As the expert on this issue, may I pose a question to you? I accept the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is messing up in Egypt – that they are suffering a credibility gap between promise and performance. But could this not also be positive in that in the process political Islam itself gets discredited. You would recall the Islamist Revolution heralded by Hasan al-Turabi in Sudan. However when I [met some of them] Turabi’s own students was critical about the Islamist revolution and indeed told me there should now be a division between state and faith. Could a similar development not happen in Egypt?”
This is a clever point and it could certainly happen. Yes, by mismanaging Egypt’s affairs the Brotherhood could become unpopular and be voted out of office. To pose this as a question, Might Despair be Moderation’s Best Friend?
There are examples of such things happening right now in Egypt, An anti-Islamist media now exists to point out this discontent though the opposition’s power is sometimes over-estimated. The mistaken lesson of the 2011 Egyptian revolution at the time was that a lot of people protesting or voting equals democracy. Yet power balances still matter. The old regime only fell because the old ruling elite wouldn’t save it due to exhaustion and factional conflict. The new Islamist ruling elite won’t make that mistake, at least for decades to come. A recent poll shows how Egyptians are becoming understandably gloomy over the situation.
Now Egypt faces a huge economic crisis. The country has only about two months’ reserves to pay for imported food. Where is it going to get around $5 billion a month to pay this bill? A proposed loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that would pay for one month or so is being held up by the Egyptian government’s refusal to sign the deal because the IMF’s conditions require cutting subsidies, and cutting subsidies on food could lead to massive riots.
Westerners generally believe that repression and suffering leads to angry responses by the masses. Yet institutions can control the situation, propaganda reshapes beliefs, repression stifles opposition. Moreover, in Third World countries, a predominantly poor people can–because they know they have no choice in economic, political, and social terms–put up with a lot more unhappiness and suffering than do middle class Americans or Europeans who have the leisure, information, freedom, and luxury of acting (albeit not necessarily effectively) on even minor complaints.
In short, dissatisfaction in Egypt doesn’t necessarily mean change. Consider these factors:
–Despair usually leads to passivity. If the last revolution failed or was disappointing are people going to want to mobilize for another one? Isn’t the message that politics don’t work or the forces making the mess are too strong? Thirty-four years after Iran’s Islamist revolution a lot of despair has only led to two peaks of moderate activity mthere. The first was coopted (the Khatami presidency which achieved nothing); the second was put down through repression (the 2009 Green Movement after the regime stole an election). The Arab nationalist regime in Egypt lasted for almost 60 years involving a lot of suffering and four lost wars (Yemen, and against Israel in 1956, 1967, and 1973).
–By the time that the Brotherhood would be discredited it will be far more entrenched in power and therefore harder to remove. Perhaps the future elections will be fixed or not even held at all. The Brotherhood will, for example, control the court system in future—doing so now is their highest priority–and thus can guarantee electoral victories.
–By then, repression will set in deeper, discouraging open dissent. Much of the time it is true that the heavier the penalty for speaking out, the fewer who will do so. Even if you have a lot of discontented people on your side it is not easy to moderate, much less, overturn an Islamist dictatorship.
–Speaking of Iran (and this is quite interesting) during the past, especially in the 1990s, it was argued that the visible failures of Iran’s revolution would discourage other countries from having Islamist revolutions, And at the time that did seem quite logical. Around the year 2000 the Islamist movement was widely considered to have failed. Yet disastrous precedents don’t necessarily discourage revolutionary Islamists who say, We can do it better! And it doesn’t mean the masses necessarily will not believe them, especially since Islam is such a passionate, powerful force.
–If the highest goal of the Middle East peoples is democracy, freedom, human rights, and material progress, the argument that these forces will triumph might be plausible. But is that in fact true? Just because people in the West think that way doesn’t make it accurate.
–Ideological enthusiasm and religious passion may carry the day rather than the everyone-wants-their-kids-to-get-a-better-life-as-their-top-priority school believes. Not every parent celebrates their kid becoming a suicide bomber, for example, but a large number do. And even though they might be angry about the children being misled by demagogues, they know well enough not to speak publicly about it. Attacking a Christian church also lets off a lot of steam as does blaming the Jews.
–Many people give up, thinking (or knowing) that there is no real road immediately visible for transforming their societies into prosperous and democratic ones.
–Others benefit materially by supporting a dictatorial regime. The government better ensure that one of these groups are military officers.
It is also often true that outside observers look at every specific development in isolation, ignoring the revolutionary rulers’ ideology and blueprint. With the armed forces apparently determined to be passive, there is only one effective institution holding back the Brotherhood: the courts. Judges were appointed under the old regime, are largely secular, and many of them showed pro-democratic independence even under the Mubarak dictatorship.
One way or another, however, the Brotherhood is moving toward replacing the judges by forcing them into retirement. And then the regime will name its own judges who will interpret things the way the Brotherhood likes as well as having a very high priority on making Sharia the law on most aspects of life.
The same process will be happening in the schools, mass media, religious and other institutions, finally reaching the entrance and promotion of Brotherhood sympathizers in the officer corps. Here’s an editor arrested for exposing the creation of Islamist death squads to target oppositionists. Here’s a new law that would intensify government control over non-government organizations, an issue that helped inspire the revolt against the old regime. And this is a description of how Egyptians made desperate by the increase in crime are lynching criminals. And here you can read a description of how most of the new cabinet ministers are Muslim Brotherhood members. And here we see Ahmad Maher, a leader of the April 6 Youth Movement, which began the revolt and served as a Brotherhood ally then, being arrested on his return to Egypt. [Maher, by the way, accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza a while back and insisted that Egypt must intervene on behalf of the Islamist regime of Hamas. This shows the lack of moderation by many of the supposedly alternative “moderates.”]
Indeed, it is very sobering to consider the Sudan, my colleague’s example of anger at an Islamist government leading to moderation. While the extreme Islamists did become discredited there eventually, the process took almost 25 years. Even today, the country is under an authoritarian dictator. And it is very significant to note that Sharia law largely continues to rule the country. The current Sudanese dictatorship, which has been credibly accused of genocide against Black Africans in the south, merely uses the pedestal provided by the Islamist predecessor. On its behalf, the Muslim clerical association has just called for jihad against anti-government rebels.
Egypt is a more advanced country than Sudan and the Islamists there are badly split. There are now four main Islamist parties in Egypt. Yet they can also work together and are all pushing in the same direction. The moderates are still weak even if you add in all the other non-Islamists (including radical nationalists and leftists). And the opposition to Islamism is more fragmented than the Islamists, lacking even an ideology or program.
Remember, too, that the governmental responses to the factors of unpopularity and economic failure are demagoguery, the scapegoating of foreigners, and international adventures.
And as one resort, the Egyptian regime–unlike Iran or radical Syria– now enjoys the assistance of wealthier Western countries and international lending institutions.
Thus, while anger and despair are going to rise in Egypt these factors are not in themselves enough to bring down a regime. Unless the army is convinced that the country is going to fall apart–and perhaps not even then–the Brotherhood is going to be in power for a long time. And that also applies to everywhere else Islamists are ruling–in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey, and perhaps soon Syria.
If you are interested in reading more about Egypt and radical Islamist movements, you’re welcome to read my book Islamic Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics online or download it for free.
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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His next book, Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, written with Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, will be published by Yale University Press in January 2014. His latest book is Israel: An Introduction, also published by Yale. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.