Despite mass arrests and killings, the will of the Egyptian people has not been broken. Far from the Ikhwan being a terrorist organization, it is the old guard unable to accept the new reality that is causing mayhem in Egypt.
Despite loud media support for the military regime, Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi’s minimum wage law, instituted in January, sparked a wave of wildcat strikes that toppled his government, February 24. Across Egypt, doctors, pharmacists, public transport employees, low-ranking policemen, pensioners, post office employees, textile workers and garbage collectors took to the streets, protesting the law, which did nothing for private sector and the lowest-paid, who constitute 75% of the labor force. They were also protesting widespread shortages of cooking gas and frequent power outages.
As Egypt inches towards the first anniversary of the July 3 coup, it continues to flounder, the military dictatorship reverting to Mubarak-era policies, buttressed only by lavish handouts from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and vague promises of future investment by Western business (so far, Coca Cola). This was the scenario as Egyptian officials went cap in hand to the Arab League Summit, March 25–26, held appropriately this year in Kuwait.
There was little cheer at the summit, with the GCC crowd fighting among themselves, Syria suspended, and the rest economic basket cases. Qatar, the only more-or-less principled actor, has been ostracized from the GCC for refusing to bless the new dictatorship in Egypt and for backing the “wrong” rebels in Syria. The Saudis (and Emiratis) are caught in a web of contradictions, both condemning the Muslim Brotherhoods throughout the region as terrorists, and at the same time supporting the al-Qaeda-type terrorists intent on toppling the Syrian dictator.
Islamic activists must constantly monitor and analyze the tragedy of Egypt. What went wrong? And, how to move forward?
What happened in Egypt is simply a more complex version of what happened in Iran in 1953, in Algeria in 1992, and in Gaza in 2007. Many of those who naively turned against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government last year, impatient with the rate of change or fearful of the new course, have already come to rue their ways. Calls for reconciliation by Mohamed Elbaradei and others fell on deaf ears. The violent dispersal of the pro-MB Rabi‘ah al-‘Adawiyah protest camp in Cairo last August forced him to wash his hands of the new government, with its platitudes about a “return to democracy.” More recently, other moderate voices such as deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa el-Din have resigned.
Bomb scares, suicide bombings and drive-by shootings, targeting mainly security forces, have become a trend in the past six months, with Christians, and more recently tourists, among the targets. The MB denies any involvement in this violence. Of course, government-hired mercenaries and just plain soldiers under orders are involved in instigating and executing such violence, as witnessed time and again since the original uprising in January 2011, and chillingly documented in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square. More recently, events in Ukraine have confirmed the use of this strategy by unprincipled oppositionists.
It is not the MB that promotes terrorism in Egypt, but the old guard and the military establishment, jealously protecting themselves from the sacrifices they must make to meet the demands of an Islamic society. The will to change society to meet the demands of Islam has been growing for decades now. It can be seen in the fight against both the Soviet and US occupations of Afghanistan and other traditionally Muslim-majority countries. The road is not smooth, and to successfully inaugurate an Islamic society today requires more than just a burning commitment to liberation, but education in the ways of modern technology, and experience in implementing that technology for the good of society.
The Economist published a revealing interview in April 2012 hinting at the possibilities of change inherent in an Islamist-led renewal. As Hassan Malek, business partner of MB leader Khairat el-Shater, says, “I have nothing else in my life but work and family.” Prior to the uprising in 2011, Malek was planning to retire from business, in light of the stranglehold which the secular elite had on the economy and the unceasing persecution of committed Muslims trying to change things. The advent of an MB-led government convinced him to plunge back into the fray.
Members of the Islamic movement pose a formidable challenge because of their work ethic, single-minded focus, and their rejection of corruption: richer members provided poorer members with food, medicine, and clothing through zakah. Millions of Egyptians have benefited from the Brotherhood’s social networks. “The problem with the past regime was not the failure of the ideology but the implementation of it and who benefited from it,” Magda Kandil, executive director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies, told The Economist. “This is what led to the revolution: people were getting poorer in the context of a growing economy. The Muslim Brotherhood understands the economy, and their vision seems on the right track. They have the longer vision, whether you like it or not.”
In March 2012, the MB founded the Egyptian Business Development Association (EBDA), bringing together chief executives from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the US, as well as old-guard non-Brotherhood Egyptian financiers. They considered major private development projects in tourism, agriculture, and technology, vocational training and aid to small and medium businesses. The EBDA resembled the business organizations of Turkey, which support and have benefited from more than 10 years under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of the AKP, and looked to the successful Asian economies such as Singapore and Malaysia.
Malek was politicized by the mass riots of 1977, which came in response to President Anwar Sadat’s unpopular policy lifting price controls on bread. “Sadat called the riots the ‘intifadah of the thieves.’ It was really poor people who needed bread.” The recent fiasco of Beblawi’s wage law and the ongoing strikes is merely a recap of this.
The Muslim Brotherhood-led economic plan would have opened up opportunities to those who never had them, giving rise to an entirely new business class. “If they succeed in doing this, I think that will be the best model for the so-called private-led growth,” Kandil says. “We can’t just tax and subsidize — it’s not sustainable.”
Looking back on the rollercoaster year when the MB were in power, the Muslim Brotherhood can take pride in its accomplishments in the face of open treason by the secular establishment and the pro-Saudi Salafis, who broke ranks in a foolish political move that will damage them long into the future. President Mohamed Mursi attempted to assert control over the military, forced Israel to put on hold another slaughter in Gaza, refused to bow to IMF pressure on food subsidies (instead mobilizing MBers to end corruption in the delivery of bread), made overtures to Iran on normalizing relations and finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian civil war, forged ahead with the Shura Council as the last legitimate elected body left by the Mubarakite judiciary and military, producing a fine constitution, incorporating much of the Shari‘ah.
However, the Muslim Brothers’ inability to deal swiftly with corruption in the military establishment, the immaturity of the Salafi movement and intelligence infiltration of their party Nour, the Brothers’ failure to assuage the few but principled liberals, and their hesitancy to involve key individuals from the disgruntled youth contributed to the calamity which culminated in the coup last July.
Despite being once again outlawed as “terrorists,” the principled refusal of the MB to bow to the coup-makers, and the ongoing popular unrest due to the unending economic malaise, ensures that the revolution will continue. The MB must be patient, reforging allies and preparing for the future.
Eric Walberg is author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization (http://www.claritypress.com/WalbergII.html)