Which Way Egypt?

The Great Mosque in Cairo

It is disconcerting to hear television news anchors that barely gave a thought to Egypt, or had any real idea where it was located on the map before this uprising, now boldly prognosticating about what is going to happen there.  Like a Greek chorus they echo the line that we need only demand that President Mubarak resign and disappear and all will be well in the cradle of civilization. They cheer the present unrest and insure us the democratic revolution is just around the corner.  This is all very touching but is it sage advice?

The more I listen to the shallow ahistorical analysis of this event gushing from the mouths of media cheerleaders, the more I think we should disregard their impassioned rhetoric and Proceed with caution.  In a mass uprising that is not centrally directed by any organized party; consuming a country with no tradition of participatory democracy, it is impossible to predict a democratic outcome. Especially when the most organized force among the rebels is a fundamentalist Islamic fraternity like the Muslim Brotherhood, which has a long and antagonistic history with the Egyptian government.

It is no accident that President Mubarak was quick to blame the Brotherhood for the unrest.  This could well be the paranoia of an old soldier who came to power after the assassination of his predecessor by Muslim fanatics, and who cannot remember a time when they did not represent a danger to the secular Egyptian state.  After all, he was two years old when the Brotherhood was founded, which means that they have been a part of the Egyptian scene all of his adult life – which as spanned 82 years, covering most of the twentieth century.

Unlike the young people who are rampaging through the streets of Egyptian cities demanding an open democratic society, certain that the fundamentalists pose no problem, Mubarak remembers a time when they posed a real threat to the building of a secular society in Egypt.  In the early days of modern Egyptian history, beginning with the success of the independence movement in 1952, Islamic fundamentalism was represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, who wanted to impose Sharia law in Egypt.  Only the military prevented them from plunging the country back to the middle ages!

The Brotherhood responded by trying to Assassinate Abdel Gamal Nasser, a military officer who had been trained in Britain and admired the progressive secular modern societies he saw in Europe.  Nasser replied to the Assassination attempt by publicly hanging their leader the great Islamic scholar Sayyid Guthb.  Thus began a protracted struggle between the Islamic theocrats and the secular autocrats that has lasted til this day.  As I write the news is breaking that today’s demonstrations are the largest ever.  Hence the situation is growing more volatile by the minute and could explode in any direction.

Those who are cavalier about the chances of the Muslim fundamentalist influencing the direction this movement will take, are ignorant of the dynamics of mass movements and the nature of revolutions.  To begin with, let us consider some of the factors that are essential to the success of mass transformative movements.  The most important elements in the growth of a movement are: A real and present enemy, a complex ideology that can be expressed in power packed slogans, a means of transmitting that ideology to large numbers of people, a source of financing one’s organization, followers who are willing to engage in face to face recruiting for the cause, and great charismatic revivalist (people blessed with the gift of oratory who can move the masses with the spoken word i.e. “preachers of the message.”

Mohamed Mahdi Akef, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood

Since all mass movements are segmented in their social organization, which means that are divided into cells, the range of ideologies among the raging masses can cover a broad spectrum from the far right to the far left.  It all depends upon the nature of the movement.  Take the feminist movement for instance.  From the outset in the 19th century there were proper Christian women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who merely wanted the right to vote and have a fair chance with men to earn their daily bread and accumulate property, to radical women like Victoria Woodhull, who insisted on absolute equality for women.

She was a spiritual healer, the first woman to own a brokerage house on Wall Street – where most of her clients were madams of New York’s numerous whorehouse and their working girls, openly advocated “Free Love” and denounced marriage as a form of female prostitution where the John got the pussy and kept the money!  After the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast published a cartoon of her portrayed as a female Satan, Victoria blackmailed Henry Ward Beecher, the most celebrated Divine in the country and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, into introducing her in a lecture on “Free Love” to a standing room only crowd at in the Great Hall at Cooper Union.  She was also a newspaper publisher and threatened to expose all of the women he had screwed in his congregation on the front page of her paper!

Furthermore, Victoria completely flaunted the racial and sexual conventions of the time by running for President with Frederick Douglass as her running mate. A beautiful woman, she and Douglass, one of the handsomest men of his time, were rumored to be undercover lovers!  And she did nothing to dispel the rumors although it scandalized the proper white ladies like Susan Anthony. Yet all three of these women were legitimate representatives of “the women’s movement.” In the twentieth century the ideological spectrum of feminist thought ranges from leftist Marxist to reformist to fascist.

I’d bet my bottom dollar, even without having all the evidence at hand, that the ideological divisions within the mass populist movement in Egypt are just as dramatic…if not more so.   However from the clearly observable features of the movement certain things can be safely assumed.  We can tell what different factions are thinking by what they tell us in interviews and the slogans they employ.   We know therefore that there are educated, westernized, Cosmopolitan Egyptians like DR. El Barridi and the Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Dr. Ahmed Hassan Zewail – the the Linus Pauling Chair Professor Chemistry and Professor of Physics at the California Institute of Technology – who have hurried home to try and influence the movement toward a secular, liberal democracy like those in the leading nations of the West.

We also know however, that there are Islamic fundamentalists who are opposed to the very idea of the modern world; never mind the concept of liberal secular democracy.  They crop up from time to time; blowing up tourist in Egypt, smashing jumbo jets into skyscrapers in New York; commanding Al Qaeda forces: you name it!  The Egyptians have got it.  There are forces in Egypt who are organically linked to the global Jihad.  In fact, it is hard to imagine the present Jihad without Egyptians – so prominent has been their role. Then there is the Muslim Brotherhood.

The most dangerous of all the illusions is that the Muslim Brotherhood poses no danger.  Of the six elements that I mentioned which are essential to the development of a successful mass movement, the Muslim brotherhood has them all.  Plus they are the largest organized force outside of the military.  Hence no one can say with certainty that they will not emerge as a major force shaping the new Egyptian society if they are allowed to compete fairly for the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people.

Both the Bolsheviks who made the Russian Communist revolution, and the Chinese Communist Party, were small minorities of the population in their countries.  Like the communist the Muslim Brotherhood has all the ingredients for building a successful mass transformative movement. And the early twentieth Communists revolutionaries didn’t have the enormous advantages offered by Facebook and Twitter. Although people talk as if only the pro democracy forces have access to this mass communication technology, that’s a dangerous illusion!  The more fluid things become, and the traditional instruments of authority are undermined by volatile social forces, anything can happen.  Thus we should beware of those who are predicting rosy scenarios ahead for Egypt; alas it’s not nearly that cut and dry.


The Youths in The Muslim Brotherhood On the March!






Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

February 8, 2011

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