Did Islamism Win Egypt's Revolution?

Contrary to many reports, the Brotherhood was fully informed of the April 6 Youth Movement’s plan to start an anti-government uprising last January but held back so as not to taint the campaign and to avoid repression if the struggle fizzled or failed. Once it saw that the movement was succeeding, the Brotherhood joined in fully.

In April 2009, the April 6 Youth Movement directly participated in creating the Egyptian Coalition for Change. This umbrella group also called for abrogating the treaty with Israel, thus putting the April 6 Youth Movement on the record as favoring this step. The April 6 Youth Movement’s partners in this coalition were mainly al-Wasat -- the Brotherhood’s least radical faction, which split away convinced that the parent group would never become moderate; Brotherhood members; and al-Karama, a socialist, anti-Western, radical nationalist party.

In August 2009, the April 6 Youth Movement expressed support for the Brotherhood. It is important to understand that while the April 6 Movement was not a front for the Brotherhood, many of its activists were Islamists and leftist, while most of its members held strongly anti-Western and anti-Israel views. Moreover, the movement viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a major partner and ally.

This is not to deny that the movement’s members called for free elections and the end of the dictatorship or that the leaders genuinely wanted democracy and human rights. Yet the best-organized elements had an interpretation of democracy rather different from the Western definition of that concept.

The idea that enemies of dictatorship are themselves radicals hostile to the West seems strange to Western observers. Similarly, the idea that people who use Facebook, favor democracy, and even seem secular are sympathetic with Islamism also appears strange. Nevertheless, such cross-overs are fairly common in the Arabic-speaking world.

Similar factors shape the views of the Egyptian military leaders, the men who made the revolution possible. It is well-known in Egypt that many of the highest officers are conservative, pious Muslims who do not perceive the Brotherhood as an enemy. A symbolic sign of these attitudes has been the increasingly “Islamic dress” of the generals’ wives. By supporting the revolution, radical nationalism, and more Islamization, the officers know they can be popular and ensure that their personal wealth and business enterprises will remain untouched.

Many of these officers and their families watch clerics like Yusuf al-Qaradawi on television and like what he says. From the standpoint of many in the military as well as many of those involved in the revolution, Islam is the answer not because of what’s been done in Tehran but as a response to their own society’s needs.

Facing what they see as unattractive Westernization, increased crime, and injustice -- while doubtful about rapid material progress -- officers see Islam as the answer to problems of identity, social justice, and internal stability. Thus, a far more Islamic Egypt is attractive. Those who would never want the Brotherhood to rule the state are often open to its having far more influence in running the religious establishment and society.

Similarly, there is a popular and deep-seated hatred of Israel, America, and the West. This relates not only to opposition to policies but an interpretation of those policies as far more aggressive, anti-Islam, and anti-Egypt than they are. This hostility has been unaltered by the efforts of President Barack Obama to make Muslims like America. Indeed, this has only led to a new conspiracy theory that Obama favors the Brotherhood and the Islamization of Egypt.

Certain U.S. government actions -- the special invitations of Brotherhood figures to President Obama’s Cairo speech, the president’s definition of the Arab world in Islamic terms, and his unilateral statement of supporting Brotherhood participation in the next Egyptian government -- have deepened that belief. This has not led to increased popularity for the president or the United States but merely convinced some influential Egyptians to jump on the Islamist bandwagon that seems -- supposedly even to the Americans -- destined for victory.

The reading of Egyptian politics prevalent in the West -- a joyous revolution producing an inevitably stable, moderate democracy, whose total success can only be questioned by hateful people -- is profoundly misleading.

A group of 100,000 politically independent young, urban middle-class Facebook users can make a revolution, at least if the army supports them. But Egyptians in the tens of millions -- overwhelmingly not middle class, urban or Facebook users -- will back organizations that are radical nationalist, Islamist, and far left. The moderate secular liberals, dependent on hardline forces, have now have been shoved aside in the battle for power.

The referendum on constitutional amendments demonstrated this fact. The leaders of the nationalist (Amr Moussa) and moderate democratic (ElBaradei) blocs campaigned against the changes. Yet 77 percent of Egyptians voted the way the Muslim Brotherhood urged. That doesn't mean they were all supporters of Islamists. Yet in this test of strength, the Islamists emerged as victors.

In addition, with the Brotherhood and ElBaradei now having a bitter quarrel -- hundreds of Islamists threw stones at ElBaradei to prevent him from voting -- the seemingly democratic coalition has lost most of its activist backers and voters for the presidential election.

By the end of 2011, Egypt is likely to have a radical anti-American president who was the most bitterly anti-Israel of all the Mubarak era's establishment politicians. It is also likely to have a parliament that is about 30 percent Islamist and another 30 percent plus radical nationalist.

This parliament will write a new constitution. Facebook liberals will be of minimal importance; the 8 million Christians, about 10 percent of the population, will be ignored. The Constitution will define Egypt as a Muslim state with Islam either being the main -- more likely -- or perhaps the sole source of law.

Anti-American, anti-Israel, and antisemitic sentiments run far deeper and wider in Egypt than Western observers perceive. The boundaries between liberal, Islamist, radical nationalist, and extreme leftist are far more porous than is assumed. And apparently hip, Facebook users can favor a Sharia state.

All of these factors will become more obvious in the coming months. Nevertheless, the disaster for regional stability and Western interests that will exist in December should have been obvious in January.