When Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was thrown from the palace in early 2011, the country turned into a three-sided ideological battleground between Islamists, liberals and leftists, and the military. The liberals and leftists were shown up as irrelevant last year when the Muslim Brotherhood and the totalitarian Salafists together won two-thirds of the parliamentary vote, and again when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected president in June of this year.
The field was then whittled down to only two factions, and it looked for a while like the army would win. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces stripped the presidency of much of its power before Morsi took office, which made the Islamists appear hardly any more relevant than the liberals and leftists who spent much of last year camped out in Tahrir Square.
But Morsi and his comrades in the Brotherhood now appear to be winning. Two days ago he fired Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, along with several other chief officers from the military, and rescinded the restrictions on his own office’s power. The army surrendered, or at least appeared to have surrendered, when it described as “natural” the transfer of power to Morsi.
The army isn’t out yet, but it’s down. If it doesn’t strike back, this week will mark the beginning of a new Egypt.
This would be terrific news if the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party were liberal and democratic, but they aren’t. Just yesterday the government announced that two Egyptian journalists will soon be put on trial, one for allegedly inciting Morsi’s assassination, the other simply for publishing “false information” that “insulted” the president. If you can’t insult the president in a newspaper, neither the president nor the system can be called democratic.
Most Egyptians voted for Islamic government of one kind or another, and it looks like they’re going to get it, good and hard.
It’s impossible to say in advance what that will look like if Morsi has his way with the place. And it’s tempting to look at four specific models of government in the region—in Iran, Turkey, Gaza, and Saudi Arabia—and assume that Egypt will resemble one or another, but it probably won’t. It’s especially unlikely to resemble Turkey.
Turkey’s current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a (relatively moderate) Islamist, but Turkey is vastly more advanced, liberal, and secular than Egypt. And its constitution is aggressively secular. Erdogan’s AK Party could be voted out of power at any time. The current governing party is Islamic, but there’s nothing Islamic about the system. Turkey has checks and balances. Erdogan has been trying to change that, but the government per se is not an Islamic state. And there’s no chance Egypt will emerge with a constitution that looks anything like the one governing Ankara and Istanbul.
The more worrisome possibility is that Egypt will look something like a Sunni Iran, but at least in the short run it isn’t going to happen. After the 1979 revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini created the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), partly to do battle with his liberal and leftist political opponents, but also because he rightly didn’t trust the military—a conscription army created by the Shah’s previous government—to follow his orders. So Iran today effectively has two separate armed forces. The regular army protects the country from its external enemies and the Revolutionary Guard protects the regime from its internal enemies.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has nothing like the IRGC. If it does move to create its own militia inside the country, the regular army will neutralize it at once. The military appears to have acquiesced to the Islamist government for the time being, but Morsi will still need to sleep with a gun under his pillow.
The Hamas government in Gaza may seem at first glance like an obvious model for the Muslim Brotherhood now that it has finally acquired power in Cairo almost a century after it was founded. Hamas, after all, is its Palestinian branch, and it has ruled the territory unopposed since vanquishing the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah forces in 2007. Egypt and Gaza are perhaps the most ideologically and vehemently anti-Israel places in the world, and they both abut Israel to the south.
There’s a huge difference here, too, though. Hamas is little more than a ragtag terrorist militia. It’s like an incompetent version of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard without a regular army to keep it in check. It can do what it wants not because it’s particularly formidable but because the only armed Palestinian alternative is in the West Bank, which is separated from Gaza by Israel.
Saudi Arabia is the least likely model of all. The Al Saud regime is an absolute monarchy that made an alliance of convenience with the Wahhabi Islamist establishment, and it survives by using the nation’s oil wealth to dole out subsidized goods and free services to the middle class. Egypt is the poorest Arab country after Yemen and Mauritania. Loyalty to the state will never be purchased with generous handouts.
More likely than not, whatever Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood do in Egypt will end up creating a fifth model of Islamic government in the Middle East that doesn’t currently exist anywhere else. And because Egypt is the cultural capital of the Arab world, it will stand a real chance of being exported and replicated in other places. Hang on. The ride will be bumpy and long.
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