Why Egypt 2011 is Not Iran 1979

Ayman Nur

4. THE RELIGIOUS FORCES: Unlike in Iran, there are relatively few prominent dissident clergy. “Televangelist” Yusuf al-Qaradawi, in exile in Qatar, should be counted among them. The Egyptian state had for the most part nationalized mosques and controlled the clerical corps. Few Egyptian clergyman command the respect or obedience of the laity to the extent that Khomeini did in Iran. The major religious party is the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928. Although it developed a terrorist wing in the 1940s, it faced severe crackdowns in the 1950s and 1960s, and lost that capacity. Although the radical thinker Sayyid Qutb came out of their movement, the MB leadership disowned him in the late 1960s and even refuted his radical doctrines (such as declaring other Muslims with whom he disagreed to be ‘non-Muslims’) as “un-Sunni.” By the 1970s the Brotherhood’s leaders were willing to make their peace with the government of Anwar El Sadat. He let them operate if they agreed not to resort to violence and not to try to overthrow the government. In the 1990s, the Brotherhood came to counter the radical movements, such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and so had a tacit partnership with the state. Egypt does not allow parties to be organized on the basis of religion, but even so Muslim Brother candidates have done well in some parliamentary elections (especially 2006), running under the rubric of other parties.

So to recapitulate. The white collar and labor activists are far more central to the organization of the Egyptian protests than had been their counterparts in the Iranian Revolution. The Egyptian “bazaar” is much less tied to the Muslim clergy than was the case in Iran, and far less likely to fund clerical politicians. Whereas Iran’s bazaar merchants often suffered from Western competition, Egypt’s bazaar depends centrally on Western tourism. Secular parties, if we count the NDP, have an organizational advantage over the religious ones, since they have been freer to meet and act under Mubarak. It is not clear that the law banning religious parties will be changed, in which case the Brotherhood would again be stuck with running its candidates under other rubrics. And, Sunni Muslims don’t have a doctrine of owing implicit obedience to their clergy, and the clergy are not as important in Sunni religious life as the Shiite Ayatollahs are in Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood, a largely lay organization, has a lot of support, but it is not clear that they could gain more than about a third of seats even if they were able to run in free elections.

One of the sources of the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity was its opposition to Mubarak, and it may actually lose followers without him around. Other religious politicians and entrepreneurs may proliferate, in a freer atmosphere, dividing the religious section of the electorate. And, the Brotherhood could well evolve to be more like Turkey’s Justice and Development [AK] Party than like its old, sectarian, underground self. There is nothing in MB ideology that forbids participation in parliamentary democracy, even though it was not exactly a big theme of its founder, Hasan al-Banna.

Some analysts read off support for the MB from Egyptians’ religiosity. Egyptians have been undergoing a religious revival in the past couple of decades. You have to think about them like southern evangelicals in the US. When I am in Egypt it reminds me a lot of South Carolina in that regard. But that people go to mosque, or that their women wear headscarves, or that they value religion, does not necessarily translate into them voting for a sectarian and somewhat cliquish group like the Muslim Brotherhood. Many pious Muslims are factory workers and so closer to April 6 than to the Brotherhood. Many women who wear headscarves do so to legitimate their entry into the modern labor force and appearance in the public sphere. National identity co-exists with the religious. Egyptians are also great nationalists, and many insist that the Egyptian nation is a framework within which Christian Copts are completely legitimate participants.

A recent Pew poll found that 59% of Egyptians favor democracy in almost all situations. And fully 60 percent are very or somewhat worried about the specter of religious extremism in their society. About 61% do not even think there is a struggle between modernizers and religion in Egypt.

Among the 31% who did see such a struggle, 59% favored religious forces and 21% favored the modernizers. Barry Rubin and Michael Totten misread this latter statistic to be true of all Egyptians. They are wrong. The statistic is not about Egyptians in general, but about the third of them who see a conflict between modernizers and religion. 59% of 31% is 18% of the whole Egyptian population who favor fundamentalists over modernizers. The rest either favor the modernizers or think it is a phony conflict. Not thinking that modernism and religiosity conflict is generally a liberal point of view.

It cannot be assumed that the Muslim Brotherhood is the future face of Egypt, and there is no reason to think it has the popularity or levers of power that would allow it to make a coup. The Brothers are more likely to gain further influence (as they already have since 2006) via parliamentary elections. I cannot, of course, know whether there will be new parliamentary elections in Egypt soon, whether the Muslim Brotherhood will be allowed to run, or how well, exactly, they will do. They would likely be far more influential in a democratic Egypt than they have been under Mubarak, but I cannot see what would make them hegemonic. They would want liquor to be banned throughout the country, e.g. which would be very bad for tourism, and a lot of Egyptians depend on tourism. Of course, social groups sometimes do go in directions that irrationally harm their economic interests. But the Cassandras have no proof that Egyptians will take that path. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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