What makes some pro-democracy movements popular in the West and others not so popular? Considering the emphasis that the Bush regime has placed on democratisation in the Muslim world as the solution for anti-Western anger among Muslims, one would expect that the eruption of popular protests against a one-party dictatorship led for nearly three decades by the same former military officer might be welcomed in Washington and gleefully publicised by the world’s media. However, the case of the recent and ongoing demonstrations in Cairo against the autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak provides yet another example of the difference between what the West says and what it does on this matter. Apart from pious and noncommittal niceties about the importance of democracy and freedom, the US government’s silence on the protests has been deafening. The reasons are not hard to fathom: the Mubarak government is the US’s closest ally in the Muslim world, while the largest element of the pro-democracy alliance that has emerged against him consists of Egypt’s oldest and best-established Islamic movement, the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen. The freedom to be Muslim and live as such is not the freedom that Washington has in mind.
Nonetheless, the fact that the world media play down the significance of the protests in Egypt should not lead us to do the same. We do not have to accept the Western suggestion that Mubarak’s Egypt is a model for gradual and peaceful democratisation just because presidential elections took place there in September, and opposition candidates were allowed to run against Mubarak for the first time. We should know by now that the political processes that are presented as democratisation in Muslim countries are in fact nothing more that strategies by which the existing elites seek to adjust their grip on power in order to hold on to it more firmly, while absorbing the energies of opposition movements and co-opting them into established political systems.
Egyptians are clearly well aware of this reality, as indicated by the fact that the protests that originally broke out over a year ago, and hastened the presidential elections, have continued since the elections. The reasons for the mass anger at Mubarak are not difficult to see. His political repression and autocratic rule apart, there is also anger with the state of Egypt under his rule, and increasingly with his supine support for US policies in Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere in the region, which Egyptians hate as much as Muslims everywhere else. It is little exaggeration to say that Egyptian society is now permanently poised on the verge of total collapse. For the last 30 years Egypt has been subjected to western-dictated development policies that have blighted the life of every citizen. For the first time ever, Egyptians are suffering from malnourishment and hunger. Cairo is teeming with uncontrolled traffic, surrounded by slum housing, has massive levels of pollution, and inadequate drinking water. Diseases linked to poverty and unhygienic conditions are rife, such as hepatitis and respiratory diseases. There is also a disproportionate cancer rate, popularly linked to the unregulated use of agricultural pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Unemployment is 12 percent or more. The idea of education for all has become a pipedream, and there is little adequate healthcare for any bar the wealthy. A yawning gap has opened between the poor masses and a tiny, wealthy elite, with the middle classes pushed towards the former. Official incompetence and corruption are rife. All these problems could be addressed far more effectively if there were a government that was accountable to its people and was judged according to the services it provided for them, rather than being accountable to Washington and judged according to its services to Tel Aviv.
The opposition movement in Egypt is an alliance of political forces united on the platform of “reform”. But few have real hope of reform through the existing political system and structures. No-one in Egypt has been fooled by the fact that Ayman Nour, the Ghad Party leader who came second in the presidential elections, and has subsequently been jailed for electoral fraud, was allowed to get 1 percent of the vote, while the genuine popular opposition force in Egypt, the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, was not allowed to run any candidate for fear that people might actually vote for him. Egyptians are also well aware of the fact that the “democratisation” process has not prevented the regime from holding some 20,000 people in political detention, some for years on end, and most of them Ikhwan members or other Islamic-movement activists. They know who would emerge as the real political power in Egypt if genuinely free elections were held, and it would not be Nour. He is more likely, should any political change be forced in Egypt, to emerge as a viable alternative to Mubarak for the US, a man who could be relied on to maintain secular, pro-western, free-market policies if the US ever decided that Mubarak could no longer be maintained as a reliable and credible ally. Were this situation to emerge, the time he is spending behind bars is likely to serve as a useful investment in his future political credibility. But most in Egypt recognise that he is little more representative of ordinary Egyptians than Mubarak himself, or his son Jamal for that matter.
Like ordinary Muslims everywhere, Egyptians look for the real solutions of their problems to the country’s Islamic movements. The Ikhwan are one of the best-established Islamic movements in the world, but their political record does not inspire confidence. They have suffered more than most from the emergence of salafi-jihadi groups dedicated to military modes of political change rather than popular or political ones, which have served only to justify official repression of all Islamic movements. A part of the mainstream Ikhwani response has been to become more “moderate” and “mainstream” to distance themselves from the “extremists”. But this has resulted in their being drawn into established political institutions, blunting their effectiveness as an opposition group. The same process has been seen with the Ikhwan in Jordan, Jama’at-e Islami in Pakistan and PAS in Malaysia. Their Islamic message has been diluted by their alliance with other, secular opposition groups. Whether they can still lead a strong Islamic movement for the transformation of Egyptian society must be doubtful; no other Islamic movement that has followed similar strategies has ever managed to effect real change in their countries.
Nonetheless, the situation in Egypt may be on the verge of radical change, as Egyptians appear determined that the status quo cannot be permitted to continue for much longer. The problem is that the available and politically viable alternatives may not be any better. For all the credibility and support that the Ikhwan have, it may require the emergence of a firmer Islamic leadership, rallying Egypt’s Muslims around an explicit call for the total, revolutionary transformation of Egyptian society, before the aspirations of Egypt’s people can be met.