Egypt: Time & Trouble: Part Two of Four

Public's support for theocrats is on the rise; to some Muslims, the prospect of a strict Islamic regime is worrisome.

Egypt 2006

By Eric Ringham

June 10, 2009

CAIRO, Egypt – A battle is underway for control of the world's most populous Arab country. It pits three forces against each other. One appears to be winning.

The three forces are the autocrats, the democrats and the theocrats. For the moment, the autocrats have the upper hand. The government of President Hosni Mubarak runs the country, controls the media and suppresses dissent.

Secular democrats are in disarray. Ayman Nour, the candidate who finished a distant second to Mubarak in last year's presidential elections, is in prison; the courts rejected his appeal last Thursday.

That leaves the theocrats, notably those under the flag of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even though their organization is officially banned and their members are subject to arrest under Egypt's emergency law, they have made striking gains in parliamentary elections and have established themselves in Cairo's poor neighborhoods as providers of health care and other social services.

The Brothers, as they are called, remind many people of Hamas, the militant Muslim group that won control in Palestinian elections. The Brothers don't appreciate the comparison.

"We have different directions," said Mohammad Habib, the Brotherhood's deputy supreme guide. "They are under occupation. We are not."

But they do acknowledge one similarity: that, like Hamas, they have the support of the people - to the chagrin of the U.S. government.

"Are you accepting of the results of democracy, or not?" asked Essam el-Erian, the Brotherhood's spokesman. "I think the Americans and all dictators in this region are afraid of popular sentiment. ... Frankly, they are afraid of democracy."

If so, Americans and dictators aren't the only ones. Even among Egyptian Muslims, the prospect of a strict Islamic regime is worrisome - and though the Brothers say that's not their goal, not everyone believes them. People who would otherwise be working to support democrats like Ayman Nour say the one thing that could make them vote for Mubarak is the risk of an Islamic regime.

"I know them very well," said the dissident poet Ahmed Fouad Negm. "I was in prison with them, and I don't like them."

An Egyptian Television correspondent agreed: "I don't believe them when they say they'll be moderates."

The Mubarak regime's failures - to create enough jobs, or to provide any sort of peace dividend from the treaty with Israel, or to implement promised reforms, or to let the 25-year-old emergency law expire - create an opening easy for the Muslim Brotherhood to exploit. In a country where the secular authorities offer no hope of change, people - especially young people, who are most of Egypt's population - look to other authorities.

Signs of the popular enthusiasm for Islam are everywhere. Young men go about with foreheads calloused by prayer. Young women whose mothers never covered their heads choose to wear scarves. People turn for advice to a hotline established by Ali Gomaa, the mufti of Al-Azhar University, or to the popular tele-Islamist Amr Khaled.

Neither the mufti nor the tele-Islamist is a friend of the Muslim Brotherhood. They and the Brothers themselves insist that Islam allows for diversity of opinion and belief. Sometimes, though, it's hard to hear much diversity in what they say.

One widely shared view is that Israel is illegitimate. Another is that the United States has abandoned any moral principle in favor of its own self-interest. And while there may be a blogger or two who feel otherwise, the crushing majority of opinion condemns the war in Iraq.

The United States "has taken the world back to the law of the jungle" by using violence to pursue its ends, said the Brotherhood's Habib.

Added El-Erian, the spokesman: "Why don't the people like Americans? Because you are supporting autocratic regimes. Because you are supporting Zionists. ... If you are genuinely democratic, you must start by accepting others."

Two truths are depressingly clear. First, the Muslim Brotherhood has beaten its political rivals in every election where it has been allowed to compete fairly. There's no reason to think its popular support is in any danger of waning. Second, if it comes to power, Israel will find itself living next door to an Egypt that no longer considers itself bound by prior peace agreements. The Brothers say they will be willing to negotiate peace with Israel once it meets certain conditions - like nuclear disarmament and a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

In other words, never.