Don’t rule out the Muslim Brotherhood’s domination of post-Mubarak Egypt, writes Daniel Brumberg. But the Islamists can be contained and moderated if the democratic opposition develops the inclusive politics and strong leadership required to engage the dynamic social forces arising from the current unrest.
At this stage in the revolution unfolding in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and beyond, it is hard to imagine how Mubarak’s regime can last much longer. Indeed, the fact that the crowds have grown by tens of thousands, and that the army is protecting them, suggests that the military is now positioning itself to force Mubarak out.
The predominant thesis set out by several experts, including Olivier Roy in the New York Times, and Asef Bayat in Foreign Policy, is that we are witnessing a “post-Islamist” movement, one that hails in particular from a fragile urban middle class whose socio-economic grievances have become politicized. But if there is much to this thesis, rumors of the inevitable irrelevance of Islamists are greatly exaggerated.
Politics is about organization. I and others have long argued that the reason why Islamists are such a critical force is not that they represent a majority; on the contrary, they are influential because they represent an organized plurality, one that faces an organized state and a disorganized civil society (labor, women’s groups, students, businessmen). Opposition to autocracy may be a strong mobilizing force in ousting a regime, but it is not sufficient to transform today’s diverse masses of protesters into a political force with the organization and staying power to compete politically with Islamists.
In the old days – that is, about a week ago – the organizational weakness of non-Islamist forces in most Arab states created a face-off between the state and Islamists, presenting non-Islamists with a difficult choice: Mubarak or the Brotherhood. That particular choice may now have collapsed. But unless the coming weeks and months see a political reform process that provides real incentives for a plurality of non-Islamist voices to organize and secure constituencies, Islamists may become hegemonic.
I am not suggesting that Islamists are, by their very nature, dangerous, evil or radical. I recognize that they contain within their folds a diverse set of voices. But in a context of mass insurrection, a collapsing state and other organized alternatives not as yet on the field of political struggle, Islamist leaders may be tempted to outbid one other, or rival elites, to establish their populist credentials, thus endowing their movement with a more radical face.
In the case of Egypt, this possibility is real. After all, the Muslim Brethren have a proven capacity to mobilize quickly. What is more, and in contrast to the leaders of Tunisia’s An-Nahda Party, the Brethren’s leaders have demonstrated a thin commitment to the principle of pluralism.
Indeed, the works of several scholars highlight this dynamic. Dina Shehata’s analysis suggests that the Brethren have been aggressively opportunistic: they have let secularists lead in challenging the regime, only to come in later having hedged their bets. When they do work with secular forces, they evince ideological flexibility when they are weak, and growing intolerance as their leverage grows within the opposition.
Similarly, Shadi Hamid has demonstrated that the Brethren’s tendency to adopt more radical positions increases when they leave the circle of elite politics and begin seeking mass support, particularly among their socially conservative base. Participation absent credible organized competition from non-Islamist forces does not appear to elicit moderation from the Brethren – quite the reverse.
Everyone who wants to see a transition from autocracy to something close to pluralist democracy –including liberal Islamists– must consider the most effective steps for avoiding this radicalizing dynamic. This will require sustained efforts to forge a common set of rules –a political pact to which all groups will pledge commitment.
Equally critical, such an agreement will require remarkable political leadership. Whether Mohammed ElBaradei can be Egypt’s Nelson Mandela, or at least take a page out of Mandela’s inspiring playbook, is an open question.
Finally, the creation of a political pact secured by credible leaders who can bridge the ideological divide is necessary, but it can only be the first step in a vitally needed reorganization of Egypt’s political field, one that will then harness the energy of new social forces. We may be in a post-Islamist moment, but we are not in a post-Islamist transition – not yet anyway.
This is a time of tremendous opportunity for Egypt and for the region. But this moment could also be a prelude to a new phase of internal conflict whose results are hard to predict. Let us hope that Egypt’s democrats, after the exhilaration of these remarkable days, do not wake up with a terrible headache.
Daniel Brumberg is a Senior Advisor to the Center for Conflict Management at the United States Institute of Peace and Co-Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University.