Should we be worried by the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in the Egyptian presidential election? Earlier this year, I interviewed Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive and anti-Mubarak activist who became the face of Egypt’s inspiring revolution back in January and February of 2011.
Was he concerned by the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt’s parliamentary elections in December? “No,” he said. “The western media, and even some sections of the Arab media, are taking a very pessimistic view. But what is going on here is very healthy. The Muslim Brotherhood was the strongest party and got almost 50 per cent of the seats.” He argued: “We should give democracy a chance and respect the choices of the Egyptian people.”
Six months on, Ghonim remains hopeful. “1st elected civilian in modern history of Egypt as President,” he tweeted, after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi’s cliffhanger victory over the Mubarak loyalist and ex-premier Ahmed Shafiq in the presidential run-off on 24 June. “Critical milestone. Revolution isn’t an event, it’s a process so it continues!”
There is a stark contrast between the undimmed optimism of Ghonim – the young, secular, liberal Egyptian activist – and the pessimism of western politicians and pundits, petrified by the rise of the dastardly Muslim Brotherhood. The latter, the world’s oldest and most influential Islamist movement, is seen by many as a threat to women’s rights, non-Muslims and, of course, western interests in the Middle East.
We need to take a collective step back and look again at the big picture. The Arab world’s most populous nation has, for the first time, elected its own head of state in a multi-candidate, free and fair election. The repulsive Hosni Mubarak and his corrupt sons are gone; their 30-year reign of terror is over. Lest we forget, in 2006, Morsi was in prison and Mubarak was in the presidential palace; today, just six years later, Mubarak is in prison and Morsi is in the palace. This is a remarkable and historic moment for Egypt, and for the wider Arab world.
That said, Morsi is far from perfect. He wasn’t even the Muslim Brotherhood’s first choice as presidential candidate (the party’s deputy chairman, Khairat al-Shater, was barred from standing). Morsi is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist (“Something must have happened from the inside,” he declared in May 2010) who has said that the state should enforce sharia law and has called for women and Christians to be banned from running for president.
But we shouldn’t write him off – yet. On winning the election, he promptly quit the Brotherhood, pledged to be the “president of all Egyptians” and promised to appoint a cabinet of “technocrats”, not card-carrying Islamists.
Here in the west, however, our obsession with Muslim Brothers such as Morsi distracts attention from two points. First, the changes we want to see in the Middle East won’t happen overnight. Revolutions, as Ghonim pointed out, take time. Yet there seems to be a wilful amnesia on the part of some pessimistic pundits in the west.
At a recent Oxford Union debate on the future of the Arab spring, a retired US general, Keith Dayton, decried the ongoing discrimination against women, homosexuals and religious minorities in countries such as Egypt and Libya. I couldn’t help but point out to the good general that it took his own country, “the land of the free”, 89 years, between independence in 1776 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, to abolish slavery. Here in the UK, there was a 96-year gap between the first Reform Act of 1832, which extended the franchise to property owners, and the sixth Reform Act of 1928, which gave women the vote on the same terms as men.
Second, the most powerful man in Egypt is not President-Elect Morsi but Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), which, in effect, has ruled Egypt since Mubarak left office on 11 February 2011.
It is the military that dominates modern Egyptian politics. All four presidents since a group of officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952 have come from the military. The country’s armed forces – the world’s tenth-biggest – are believed to control between 30 and 40 per cent of the Egyptian economy. And in June Scaf dissolved the elected parliament and claimed legislative power for itself. Egypt, in the words of one commentator, is a military with a state rather than a state with a military.
Shamefully, the United States has spent the past three decades propping up Egypt’s generals. Since the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the US has lavished $35bn in aid on the Egyptian military, making it the largest recipient of US military and economic aid after Israel.
But things have changed since the fall of Mubarak, right? Wrong. “Once imperilled, US aid to Egypt is restored”, read the headline in the New York Times on 23 March. In December 2011, President Obama signed a law that required the Egyptian government to support the transition to civilian government and protect freedoms of speech and assembly before any US military aid could be approved. But, said the NYT, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “used her authority under the new law to waive a requirement that she certify Egypt’s protection of human rights”, thereby allowing “the Egyptian military to continue to arm and equip its forces”. So much for Obama’s vow, in May 2011, “to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy”.
The biggest obstacles to greater freedom and democracy in Egypt are the generals, not the Brothers. Yet they, too, like their former boss Mubarak, as well as their paymasters in the US, are on the wrong side of history. The “reform genie”, as an unnamed western diplomat told the Financial Times on 20 June, is out of the bottle. The Egyptian people, whether secularist or Islamist, Muslim or Christian, won’t tolerate another three decades of Mubarak-style rule. As Ghonim told his half-million followers on Twitter in June: “The only thing that will make us go back to living in fear, oppression and silence is a time machine – they haven’t invented that yet.”