Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 May - 6 June 2012
Issue No. 1100
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Why liberals got it wrong and Islamists obliged

Islamists didn't hijack the Egyptian revolution; liberals never had the numbers to carry it off, writes Rahim Elkishky

It was only a question of time before Islamists trounced all of Egypt's opposition parties put together, both old and new, and went on to wrest control of parliament from a suddenly moribund National Democratic Party (NDP), which had all but monopolised the political scene. Yet the most troubling aspect of these events is not their occurrence but rather their nauseatingly predictable course.

The truth is that Islamist candidates have been defeating their liberal rivals rather consistently since 1967 in the wider Middle East. The pattern began to replicate itself on a grander scale with the national elections in Algeria in 1991, Gaza in 2006, and Sudan in 2010. Why would anyone think Egypt would be different?

Egypt has the unique distinction of being the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since 1928, the year of its founding, this organisation has grown into the most pervasive, most effective politico-religious organisation ever. The Egyptian electorate got a foretaste of just how effective back in 2005. Tarek Osman described the parliamentary elections that took place that year in his book Egypt on the Brink. The Brotherhood, he wrote, "won 88 seats, roughly one-fifth of the parliament; a number that could have been much higher but for the procedural and tactical interventions by the regime in the second and third rounds of the elections."

Practically every man, woman and child was privy to this elementary fact of life. Liberals, on the other hand, took to arguing dismissively that Egyptians had voted for the Brotherhood out of anti-regime sentiments and, besides, there was no alternative to the Brotherhood for the moment. This argument has been shown to be a misguided oversimplification, at best, as Egypt prepares to play host to the Islamists' biggest conquest to date.

THE PLOT: There was no talk yet of a revolution on 25 January 2011. Protest organisers had picked this date, National Police Day, to protest widespread police abuse, not to instigate social upheaval. Throngs of people began streaming into Cairene streets, 30-40,000 according to activists. Numbers multiplied rapidly on 28 January and onwards.

The day after President Hosni Mubarak announced, in what was then dubbed "the emotional speech", that all demands of protesters would be met, separate demonstrations instantly broke out in Mustafa Mahmoud Square, a few kilometres from Tahrir. The demonstrators agreed with his decision to stay on until September to avert the chaos looming over the nation.

In response to these developments the jubilant Tahrir crowd began to thin, with the exception of hardcore revolutionaries and the Muslim Brothers. They insisted that Mubarak would not keep those promises, and perhaps worrying too about possible punitive measures should he keep his position for even a brief time. Then, on 2 February, three unexpected incidents intervened to reignite civil strife. One was the infamous "Battle of the Camel", where horse and camel-mounted men came barrelling through the Tahrir crowd under the gaze of cameras and of the whole world. Two, activists distributed flyers denouncing Mubarak's alleged net worth of $70 billion after being first reported on ABC news. And three, reports on snipers continuing to target demonstrators in Tahrir later that day and the next. All three incidents happened in the space of one day as the Tahrir crowd started to leave, diverting attention from Mubarak supporters in Mustafa Mahmoud Square and causing more rage. The net result was to smother pro-Mubarak sentiments following his last speech and to draw people back to Tahrir again.

SIZING UP THE NARRATIVE: Did the Islamists really hijack the revolution? Was it a liberal revolution to begin with?

One possible narrative is that the liberals started a demonstration on 25 January, which Islamists then later turned into a revolution. It may sound a little simplistic at first, but it contains a grain of truth.

The first glimmering of that eventuality came on the eve of 28 January, the "Friday of Anger". Mohamed El-Baradei -- formerly head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a Nobel Prize laureate, and a figure quickly gaining the status of a revolutionary icon -- met in confidence with the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. Immediately after the meeting, the Brotherhood officially announced it would allow its membership to join in the protests and bring their full weight to bear on the rapidly evolving situation. Only then did the demonstrations swell to the hundreds of thousands; only then did the demonstrators decide to resist police efforts to disperse them; and only then did the police, hard pressed to handle the teeming protesters, crumble. And again, only then did the protests take the ominous shape of a full-blown revolution.

In a PBS documentary aired 22 February called "The Brothers," correspondent Charles Sennott followed a certain Mohamed Abbas, the person leading the Brotherhood youth wing's agitation for Mubarak's resignation. Abbas took his American viewers on a tour to show off his organisation, the food collected, and the medical stations strewn around Tahrir. During the tour something came unbidden into view. A follower of Abbas had come out flashing a copy of the Quran in front of a camera. Abbas immediately rushed over and asked him to put away the Quran then returned to the TV correspondent. When the latter asked him what had just transpired, he replied -- in paraphrase -- "We don't want to show the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology to the press, it will be bad for the revolution."

Clearly, the Islamists' overriding aim was to garner as much national and international acceptance as they possibly could, but before gaining full control of the country they could not afford to bare their true intentions. A week before the PBS documentary was aired, The Economist published my letter in its 17 February issue where I argued that Islamist extremism had reared its head everywhere that fair democratic elections were held in the Middle East and North Africa, and that the Brotherhood would never show its true face until Mubarak -- the common enemy to the revolutionaries, whether Islamic or liberal -- was out of the way.

In her article in Time magazine, "Egypt through the Lens of Iran's 1979 Revolution," published 13 February 2011, Roya Hakakian pointed to Iran's liberals in 1978-9. While demanding nothing more than freedom and democracy under the Shah, they were soon joined and all but overtaken by the Islamic opposition thanks to a national referendum. One sentence struck me in that article: "The first misstep of the Iranian secular movement came as early as 1978, when they blindly embraced a union with the religious opposition."

This is exactly what the liberals did in Egypt and perfectly describes their predicament. Even before 25 January, liberals had tirelessly solicited Brotherhood support in hopes of achieving the critical mass they needed.

Hakakian's article tells Egypt's story as it has unfolded since 25 January, but it may equally foretell the future. "The few who were smart enough not to believe the Ayatollah," she argued, "made the common mistake smart people often make: they underestimated the intelligence of others. They were confident that they could outmanoeuvre the Ayatollah. The Western-educated, stylishly-suited secular leaders assumed themselves far too sophisticated to be outwitted by the plainly-dressed provincial clerics."

Well before the troubles erupted, the liberals' original pre-revolutionary entente with the Islamists was clear. According to WikiLeaks documents published in January 2011, several Egyptian activists from the 6 April group confidently travelled to the US in 2008 for talks with Congressmen about the possibility of US assistance in toppling Mubarak before Egypt's 2011 presidential elections. The same cable concluded that the major anti-regime groupings shared a vision for the post-regime era. It stated that "several opposition forces -- including the Wafd, Nasserist, Karama and Tagammu parties, and the Muslim Brotherhood, Kifaya, and Revolutionary Socialist movements -- have agreed to support an unwritten plan for a transition to a parliamentary democracy, involving a weakened presidency and an empowered prime minister and parliament, before the scheduled 2011 presidential elections"

El-Baradei not only embraced this idea and movement back in 2010, he also formed the National Association for Change with the aid of high-profile Brotherhood members like Mohamed El-Beltagui. Soon after, he issued his now-famous "Together for Change" petition, listing seven demands from the regime. All told, according to Wael Ghoneim in his book Revolution 2.0, El-Baradei managed to gather no more than 100,000 signatures. But his petition lengthened manifold after he persuaded the rest of the Brotherhood membership to sign as well. Some say the number of petitioners reached over 600,000.

Given these and countless other indications, why were liberals taken aback by their pitiful showing at the polls? They should not have been, but behind this question lies the dubious assumption that the Islamists even had to bother with "hijacking" a liberal revolution.

The Islamists, the Brotherhood in the lead, began to separate themselves from Tahrir's hardcore liberals right before the yes-no referendum on constitutional reforms. It was held on 19 March 2011 and resulted in a 77 per cent favourable vote, with most Islamists favouring the "yes" side, most liberals the "no" side. This was the first clear indication that not all the "revolutionaries" were reading from the same page. Later, Islamists refrained from joining any subsequent demonstrations that smacked of an anti-army slant. Then came parliamentary elections with the Muslim Brothers walking away with 47 per cent of the parliamentary seats, the Salafist Nour party with 25 per cent. Soon after the voting ended, upper house elections were held and the Brotherhood grabbed 59 per cent of the seats, the Nour 25 per cent, but most of the liberal parties -- having boycotted the process -- ended up with even more dismal results than in the People's Assembly election. Islamists have since availed themselves of their upper and lower house majorities, and determined to place the most members on the commission overseeing the drafting of the new constitution. Having shown no flexibility on "Islamic" matters in the first few meetings, most liberal parties, Al-Azhar, and the Church quit the constitution-drafting panel.

The fact is liberals had lulled themselves into believing they had a captive audience in the country. 'Come parliamentary elections, we will win the majority,' they believed. It was precisely this false sense of security that had led to their gravest mistake; abandoning the one demand that might have spared the country a lot of pain: "Constitution First" (the demand that the constitution be written before parliamentary elections). In addition, they insisted on holding early elections without being prepared and with no experience. They imagined Islamists as no more than a small group of fellow Egyptians long abused by the government; they had simply accepted the Brotherhood's kind offer of help as a ticket to power, but they had no doubt that they were somehow the rightful heirs. Even El-Baradei on numerous occasions assured his followers that Islamists would not get more than 15-20 per cent of votes. I have found no evidence for these claims. It was little more than a short-lived power trip. Now, some revolutionaries blamed the military for allowing Islamic parties to form, others hurled accusations of treason because, they claimed, the military had handed the country over to the Muslim Brotherhood. Ironically, many of those same people had been blaming President Mubarak for banning the Brotherhood from Egyptian politics, calling it al-mahzoura (the outlawed).

WHAT'S NEW ON THE BLOCK? Egypt's presidential elections started on 23 May. Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Mursi came out in favour of introducing Sharia as the new law of the land. Former top Brotherhood member, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, another candidate, portrayed himself as a more "moderate" Islamist while somehow obtaining the endorsement of several ultraconservative Salafist groups, which in turn have accused the Brotherhood of being too moderate.

With elections results confirming the Islamist ascendance, and Islamist bullhorns blaring away on every street corner of Egypt, a country with 40 per cent of its populating lying below or just above the poverty line, and half of whom can barely read and write, it unsurprising that so many vote for any long-bearded, self-crowned interpreter of the Quran. The problem -- as usual -- is not the Quran, but rather the ilk that happens to hold it for God knows what political end.

The writer is a political analyst.

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