Middle East, democracy, elections and Islamists are words that, combined, provoke mixed feelings. But we should consider whether or not these feelings are rational or based on misperceptions. Municipal elections usually attract little attention from international media, but last week’s events in Egypt are worthy of attention
Following a trend of de-liberalization adopted in recent years, Mubarak has put further restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in these municipal elections. Only 20 of the Brotherhood’s candidates were allowed to take part; 20 competed for 52,000 available seats. The movement declared a boycott and demonstrations took place in different parts of the country; the reported images were such that a distracted eye might have taken them for Iraq. There was a shocking scene during the Mahala labor strike, which took place during the week of electoral unrest, where a big poster of Mubarak was torn down by an angry crowd. While the Mahala strikes were not related to the brotherhood or their electoral problems, the message was clear: pressure is rising.
The US has carried out a contradictory policy of pressuring Mubarak toward liberalization while later supporting restrictive measures. Of course, the mindset in Washington has changed and democracy today carries worrisome connotations when referring to this part of the world. But let’s face it, it is as dangerous to pursue democracy by force as to turn our backs to efforts to liberalizing efforts. Mubarak is not Saddam, but his political closures are leading Egypt toward boiling point. No one wants instability in Egypt but stability will only come by the hand of easing the state of seizure. Trouble comes when Washington fears that lending a hand will lead the country towards an Islamic theocracy such as the one in hated Iran. It is at this point where Washington’s ignorance and Mubarak’s desires converge. We should be wise to realize that if the government goes after the Muslim Brotherhood it is not because of their religious agenda, but due to a simple power struggle.
Today, the Islamic movement is the only opposition group in the country; the remaining parties are openly meaningless. We must abandon the illusion that the fight in Egypt is between a secular government and an Islamist radical group; the government is not so secular and the Muslim Brotherhood is not so radical. Furthermore, repression has focused on the more reformist sectors of the movement, which demonstrates that the government is not afraid of Shari’a, which, by the way, is already constitutionally recognized as a main source of law but rather, of a contender to power.
We have to open our eyes: the Muslim Brotherhood is not al-Qaeda. The White House of today and the White House post-November should realize that it is in their best interest to support political openings and political groups in Egypt (and in every authoritarian/semi-authoritarian countries). The worst thing that can happen in Egypt is that the Muslim Brotherhood realizes that Mubarak is closing them the door to any kind of participation; if they are forced out of the political arena it will lead to acute tensions in the country. A non-participating Muslim Brotherhood would be left out with only two choices, to either renounce to any kind of political role –highly unlikely after 80 years of playing a key role in Egypt– or to resort to other means, not excluding violence. The marginalization of the Brotherhood is not in the interest of anyone.
The current food crisis in Egypt may trigger the pressure cooker to blow. The US should examine underlying political realities and help redirect Egypt’s political course before further tensions are unleashed.