Egypt has long been a mystery, even to those diplomats, aid workers and journalists who have spent years walking its dusty streets, sipping tea in its cafés, and chatting with people from all walks of life: students and teachers, officials and merchants, the hungry and the corrupt.
The country seemed a place so ancient and passive that rule by a strongman was part of the landscape – like the giant pyramids built by slaves to honor dead kings 3,000 years ago.
Once, during a visit, I saw an ornate, larger-than-life-size portrait of the man who had led Egypt since 1981, Hosni Mubarak. Poor, unemployed and bitter people passed by that portrait day and night. But not one of them put a single scratch or mark of graffiti on it. It was as if Mubarak was a pharaoh, untouchable and unchangeable.
Under the surface, though, Egypt seethed with dissatisfaction, a tinderbox that would ultimately be ignited by Tunisians’ success in driving their own dictator from power. In December 2010, fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death in protest of police treatment, setting off a revolution and inspiring copycat self-immolations in Egypt and other Arab countries. These, in turn, birthed pro-democracy revolts – a so-called Arab Spring – in Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Syria.
In Egypt, hundreds of thousands of people assembled daily in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to call for democracy and an end to one-party rule and police torture. The 500,000-strong army moved tanks and troops near the square but stayed neutral, winning Egyptians’ respect and admiration. Pro-Mubarak thugs attacked demonstrators with rocks and sticks, but they would not be moved. Foreign and Egyptian journalists were beaten and arrested before they were allowed to cover the protests, which were led by young people like Google executive Wael Ghonim, who started a Facebook page dedicated to a man beaten to death by police. Ghonim was jailed for a week. After his release, he gave a teary-eyed speech in Tahrir Square that marked the beginning of the end for Mubarak.
Forced to step down, the dictator – along with his son and cronies – was arrested and tried for corruption and abuse of power. Meanwhile, the army set up a provisional council to run Egypt, the most populous of the 22 Arab states that stretch from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east. But it was unclear to observers if real democracy was about to be born. Those who ran the country for 30 years – as members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party or in the elite business class – remained largely in place. And the army from which Mubarak sprang remained in power, protecting its vast network of factories and other moneymaking concerns.
Within weeks of Mubarak’s downfall, the only organized political group in Egypt that appeared ready to run for parliament was not the liberal, educated and Internet-savvy youth who launched the protests, but the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to install shariah, or Islamic law. Outlawed by Mubarak and his predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat (who was assassinated in 1981 by Muslim extremists), the Brotherhood claims it will respect the rights of 8 million Coptic Christians and not try to cancel the Camp David peace accord with Israel. Even Karam Zohdi, who spent 22 years in prison for the assassination of Sadat, told me in a Cairo jail that he regretted the killing and would only advocate for peaceful moves toward Islamic rule. But many fear that the Brotherhood only says what it hopes will get it into power, and that in the end, Egypt will end up like Iran, where Islamic mullahs won power in 1979 and never let go.
Wrong Turn. On Feb. 19, 2011, two days after Mubarak resigned, one of the Brotherhood’s prominent thinkers, Sheikh Yusuf Abdullah al-Qaradawi, preached openly to a million people in Cairo, ending a 50-year exile. It was an early sign that Islamist chickens were coming home to roost. Al-Qaradawi had earlier, on his TV show, encouraged suicide bombings against Israel and U.S. forces in Iraq. In a 2009 sermon on Al Jazeera, he prayed, “Oh Allah, take the Jews, the treacherous aggressors … do not spare a single one of them. Oh Allah, count their numbers and kill them, down to the very last one.”
The 30-year peace with Israel, midwifed by President Jimmy Carter at Camp David in 1979, was already under attack, and not just verbally. Militants operating in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula blew up the gas pipeline to Israel. Some of them also crossed the border and killed eight Israelis near Eilat. When Israeli troops in hot pursuit accidentally killed six Egyptian border guards, anti-Israel mobs attacked and burned the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Both Israel and the Egyptian army quickly calmed the situation. Cooler heads remember and seek no repeat of the bloody wars fought in 1948, 1955, 1967 and 1973. In fact, throughout the Arab uprisings that followed those in Tunisia and Egypt last year, there has been little anti-Israeli or anti-American sentiment expressed. So far.
Oddly enough, the Brotherhood stood on the sidelines while young people – using social media like Facebook and Twitter – challenged Egypt’s police and won the hearts of millions around the world. Only once it became clear that Mubarak was finished did the Brotherhood come out to the square and seek to take over the uprising.
Egypt’s revolution might have been predicted, although few saw it coming. Cafés in Egypt had for years shown Al-Jazeera and other satellite news channels. Anyone with a basic education could use computers in Internet cafés. Thousands had traveled to Europe or the United States for education, where they tasted freedom of speech and saw corrupt officials prosecuted and jailed, no matter how rich and powerful. In Egypt, injustice was part of daily life.
Several years ago, I was staying at a budget hotel in Cairo and could not sleep, so I went downstairs to take a walk. Behind the front desk were seven young men squeezed together on a wooden bench. They told me that all of them had completed bachelor’s degrees at Cairo University, but this was the only job they could get. Their pay: $30 per month. Hope of advancement: zero.
Initially, the Arab Spring of 2011 sounded like great news. We were all overjoyed to hear of despots pushed from power by popular uprisings calling for real democracy, from Egypt and Tunisia to Yemen, Libya, Syria and Bahrain.
But some of us warned early on that rebellions in countries such as Egypt, which had never had democratic institutions like a free press and political parties, might open the door to Islamist takeovers. And these are countries that have been crucial U.S. allies for decades.
Such fears were confirmed by the first two elections that closed out a turbulent year in the Middle East. The results sent shivers through onlookers in Cairo, Tel Aviv and Washington, as Islamists won in both Tunisia and Egypt.
Tunisia is a small, weak, but relatively prosperous country. Egypt is a giant land of 80 million people, a leader of the Arab political and cultural world, but wracked by poverty and social conflict.
In December, the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections was won by the Muslim Brotherhood (36.6 percent), and the even more extremist Salafist party (24.4 percent). The young Egyptians who led the overthrow of Mubarak received less than 20 percent of the votes cast. More election rounds are to take place before June for the rest of Parliament, the presidency and a new constitution. But the stunning victory by Islamic parties has cast a pall over the entire Middle East.
The Egyptian military ruling council that took power after Mubarak resigned told foreign reporters after the December election that the Islamists do not represent the real Egypt and only won because of their superior organization. One general said the army would not let them take power or write the new constitution.
But if the Brotherhood does not reflect the true voice of modern Egypt, as the army insists, neither do the educated, English-speaking young men and women who led the protests.
“The revolution was a revolution of the big cities,” Hani Shukrallah, editor of the Ahram Online news service, told The New York Times. “The provinces are just not there. The secular values that drove the revolution have not reached them.”
Uncertain Outcome. The United States is torn. Clearly, it’s in America’s interests to avoid an Islamic takeover in Egypt that might repress women, break the peace accord with Israel, oppose U.S. policies, and install the (literally) hand-cutting penalties of shariah.
But the United States supports democracy, and sometimes takes risks that people and parties it dislikes will gain power. In 2006, the State Department burned its fingers by pushing the Palestinian Authority to carry out elections. Predictably, Hamas won and immediately set up an extremist state in Gaza, firing rockets into Israel on a daily basis.
Though the Egyptian army said it would block an Islamist takeover regardless of the election outcome, the White House called on the army to respect the will of the majority, even if it favors the Islamists.
The unrest and threat of a turn to extremism has hit Egyptians hard: foreign investment is down by two thirds, from $6.8 billion in 2010 to $2.2 billion in 2011. Foreign cash reserves fell from $36 billion to $20 billion. Tourism, which provides income to millions, is far below peak levels.
The United States – perhaps inadvertently, perhaps seeking stability above all else – contributed to the problem by propping up the government with a huge aid program. Egypt has received $30 billion in civilian aid and $40 billion in military aid since it made peace with Israel at Camp David. But public-opinion research shows that most Egyptians believed that U.S. aid was a myth, stolen by the government, served American interests or bought Egyptian support for U.S. policies. Others declared that they were ashamed to receive U.S. aid.
Some of that money was lost to corruption or benefited the military’s private business operations. But the aid did help push Egypt forward, meeting various needs of its expanding population. Paved roads and apartment blocks spread across the desert. New buses transported people who were plainly better fed and clothed than in the 1980s. Diesel-powered water pumps replaced donkeys that had turned water wheels to irrigate fields of onions and pepper. Clinics funded by U.S. aid offered family planning, vaccinations and other health care to millions.
But beneath it all, Egypt was the same highly stratified, corrupt and unjust place. One of the best ways to understand Egyptian society is to read “The Yacoubian Building” (Harper, 2004), by Alaa al-Aswany, one of Egypt’s most astute social commentators and journalists. “This country doesn’t belong to us,” one of the novel’s characters says after her boyfriend is denied a police officer’s job because his father was a janitor. “It belongs to the people who have money.” The boy later turns to radical Islam.
Michele Dunne, an Arabic-speaking analyst with the Carnegie Endowment and a former State Department adviser, told a conference at the National Press Club in Washington that the societies and governments of many Arab countries, including Egypt, have gone in separate directions. “The societies were active, vibrant, while the governments were stagnant,” Dunne said. “A gap opened up.”
Democratic change swept the former communist bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the Arab world has remained a monolith of authoritarian rule. Kings, presidents for life, dictators, army chiefs and strongmen ruled through secret police and torture.
When I visited Rabat, Algiers, Cairo, Sana’a, Beirut, Amman and Riyadh, I was told – and often believed – that Arabs feared each other and, thus, accepted strong-handed rule. The high birth rate meant millions of unemployed and dissatisfied young men hanging around the cities. Many ordinary people were happy that the secret police kept the youth under control. The greatest fear was that the mob would simply rise up. Of 22 Arab countries, not one had democracy.
The fact that much of the world’s oil came from this region made it even easier to go along with the status quo. After 9/11, the worst nightmare for the United States was that al-Qaida might take power in a prominent Arab country. So the U.S. policy was to support the Mubaraks and other undemocratic leaders of the Arab world.
Now that the leadership of several key countries such as Egypt is in doubt, U.S. policy is also up in the air. Will the United States get cooperation and be invited to help stabilize the region as in the past, working with Arab security forces and intelligence in Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to defeat terrorists? Will U.S. foreign aid, both military and civilian, be used as a carrot to buy friendship? Can the United States remain influential if the new leaders are hostile to U.S. efforts? These questions will be answered in the coming months and years.
Principal Partner. Egypt has hardly any oil, is far from wealthy, and is surrounded by deserts bordering on unstable or repressive regimes such as Libya, Sudan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But it has been an anchor for U.S. efforts to resolve the Middle East’s major conflict: Israel and the Palestinians, long a source of anti‑Western sentiment in the wider Muslim world, from Indonesia to Nigeria. Since 1979, Israel and Egypt have been at peace. U.S. and other peace monitors still patrol the Sinai, which remains demilitarized. With the peace, military spending by Israel fell from about 25 percent of its budget to 8 percent. Egyptian spending also declined, especially with U.S. aid paying much of the army’s budget. Egypt is a partner in fighting al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. Egyptian soldiers fought alongside U.S. forces in the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait. The Suez Canal remains open to world shipping.
Egypt is also the intellectual heart of the Arab world – a center for publishing, music, film and ideas. It represents a major part of the Sunni Arab world, which these days fears that Iran will build a nuclear weapon and unite Shiites in Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia to oppose U.S. and Sunni Arab interests. Since 9/11, the United States has fielded 250,000 troops fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and U.S. missiles killed more Muslims in Libya and Yemen. Accusations by extremists and critics that the United States is waging a crusade against Islam are easier to reject when you have warm relations with the largest Arab nation.
The revolution in Egypt has raised deep fears for the future. Egypt stands at a precipice of history. The army is refusing to hand over control to anyone – neither the liberal pro-democracy movement nor the entrenched Muslim Brotherhood.
By January, the Muslim Brotherhood and its even more extreme Islamist cousins in the Salafist Party had won an overwhelming majority in elections for a new parliament.
If the army allows this new parliament to have operational power over Egypt, many people fear the Islamists will figure out a way to remain in power permanently, like the Mullahs did in Iran. They fear that Egypt’s 8 million Coptic Christians will be forced to flee, that women will be banned from public life, that liberals will be silenced, and that the Camp David peace accord with Israel will be torn up.
Many Egyptians wonder if – despite their boldness and bravery in Tahrir Square – they have traded the demon of Mubarak’s stagnation and corruption for the demons of military rule and religious extremism.
Ben Barber has been a journalist for 30 years. His articles have been published in The Washington Times, USA Today, the London Observer and McClatchy newspapers. His book, “GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work, Play and War,” will be published by de.Mo Design in 2012.