The fall of Mubarak and the rise of political Islam illustrate the hidden power of social change. To understand how Egypt’s Islamists performed so well and what it means for Egypt’s future, turn the clocks back to 1952.
When Egyptians rose up to demand democracy a year ago, the United States, it was said, faced a choice between its interests and its ideals. As Tahrir Square swelled and President Hosni Mubarak wobbled, Washington dithered. Realists fretted that democratic elections would sweep radical Islamists to power—a specter Mubarak himself raised often in defending his brutal reign. Everyone understood Mubarak to be a dictator, but he was our dictator and we needed a strong hand to choke the Islamist threat.
Eager to counter the realists’ pessimism and Mubarak’s self-serving logic, liberals downplayed the prospect of an Islamist victory in democratic elections. Speaking a few days before Mubarak’s fall, Cherif Bassiouni, the esteemed international law expert and native Egyptian, dismissed the Muslim Brotherhood as “a bogeyman” and predicted that in a free election, “they couldn’t get 20 percent of the vote if they wanted.”2 The Managing Editor of Foreign Policy Magazine Blake Hounshell similarly cited the 20 percent figure and concluded that the Muslim Brotherhood was “in danger of being pushed to the margins of political life.”3
Bassiouni and Hounshell couldn’t have been more wrong. One year later, the Brotherhood sits at the center of Egyptian politics. Analysts have pointed to several advantages the party holds over its liberal challengers. The better organized and more experienced Brotherhood is also credited for having been the vanguard of Egypt’s long-suffering opposition. But the bigger surprise to come out of the elections has been the performance of the ultra-conservative Salafist party, Nour, which is on pace to secure a quarter of the seats. Nour was formed just a few months ago and enjoys none of the advantages credited with securing the Brotherhood’s victory. Combined, the two Islamist parties will take more than two-thirds of the vote. There must be something else, something deeper going on here.
Mubarak’s demise caught us all by surprise. Here was the strongest of Middle Eastern strongmen with a security apparatus well versed in the discipline of repression. But the fall of Mubarak and the rise of political Islam illustrate the hidden power of social change. Subtle and gradual, social change often goes unnoticed, but it is a pervasive and inevitable byproduct of modernization. And when it goes unaddressed, social change can herald dramatic political upheaval. To understand how Egypt’s Islamists performed so well and what it means for Egypt’s future, turn the clocks back to 1952.
Rise of political islam
When Gamal Abdul Nasser and his fellow military officers overthrew the British-allied King Farouk and seized power they fully intended to transform Egyptian society—and they succeeded. Their policies unleashed a social transformation of tremendous speed and scale with implications that resonate to this day.
Nasser’s grand plan was a secular, socialist revolution designed to erase the legacy of colonialism and feudalism. The core of his government’s policy was a bold land reform program, giving peasants title to their land and at a stroke dismantling the country’s feudal structure. But as is often the case, the grander and bolder the scheme, the more likely that its results will be extraordinary and completely unexpected. The reforms reduced farmers’ holdings to tiny tracts of land that could no longer support large peasant families. Combined with soaring birth rates, the result was mass migration, not of opportunity, but of necessity. Towns turned into mega-cities, with Cairo’s population ballooning from two million in 1952 to eighteen million today.
Nasser had unleashed a far-reaching social transformation, but not the one he had intended. By the thousands, Egyptian peasants accustomed to living in tiny villages, where most neighbors were relatives, settled into vast slums with people from across the country. Agricultural jobs that had been unchanged for generations were suddenly replaced by unfamiliar factory labor or construction work. These internal migrants settled in Cairo’s shantytowns — overcrowded slums with unpaved roads, piles of burning trash, and open sewers. Others left the country altogether. In search of work, thousands of Egyptians traveled to Saudi Arabia, where they came to know the Kingdom’s more puritanical take on Islam, wahhabism. Upon returning home, these migrant workers introduced this stricter gospel to Egypt, where it found fertile ground. For millions of Egyptians, modernization and social engineering have meant shattering disruption, new forms of misery, and diminished opportunity. Many of those bewildered by the pace of change found solace and a support network in Islam.
In the decades since Nasser launched his abortive revolution, Islam has grown far more prominent in public life. Membership in religious associations has soared and new mosques have sprung up around the country. Devout Muslims dominate student unions and professional syndicates and the national carrier, Egypt Air, no longer serves alcohol on its flights. More conspicuously, Egyptian women have donned the hijab, the religious head covering, or in more extreme cases, the niqab—a full-length black garment that conceals all but the eyes. A rare sight in the 1960s, they are common in the new millennium. For confused Egyptians unable to understand or plot a way out of their dismal situations, Islam provided prescriptions for what had to be done. Far from the secular Egypt he had imagined, Nasser’s policies led to a more religious Egypt.
Rise of the opposition
While Nasser’s state-led economy failed to generate enough capital to drive economic growth, the benefits of Anwar Sadat’s economic opening failed to trickle down. Under Mubarak, mass privatizations benefited a crony capitalist elite enriched by its ties to the presidential palace. Meanwhile, the rest of Egypt bore the costs of globalization without seeing the benefits. As frustration grew, acts of civil disobedience grew larger and more frequent. Beginning in 2008, workers in private factories organized sit-ins, strikes, and other forms of labor protest. They were soon joined by Egypt’s first independent public sector unions, whose members have seen their living standards decline steadily in the face of rising prices. Leftist political parties demanded improved wages and working conditions while calling on the state to protect Egyptian industry and invest in development schemes to promote national growth and employment.
In these and other ways, large swathes of Egyptian society came to oppose the Mubarak regime, giving birth to a variety of protest movements. Kifaya (Enough), the National Association for Change, and We Are All Khalid Said (named after a 28-year old who was brutally beaten to death by police officers in 2010) called for a new political order. The group credited for coordinating the protests that brought down Mubarak, “The April 6 Youth Movement,” got its start organizing strikes in the industrial town of Hamalla in the Nile Delta during the spring of 2008. Harnessing the power of the Internet and social networking sites, the movement grew its membership to over 100,000, attracting a new generation Egyptians who had never been politically active before.
To produce political instability, the dynamic of social change often needs just a spark. In the case of Egypt, that spark came on January 14, 2011, when Tunisia’s long-standing President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was forced into exile by nationwide protests. Sensing an opportunity, organizers from the April 6 movement called for rallies across Egypt on “Police Day,” a national holiday honoring an institution many Egyptians held in contempt as the blunt instrument of a brutal regime. The protests quickly reached critical mass by tapping the discontent that had been brewing for decades. Egyptians from across the socioeconomic and political spectrum took to the streets. Leftists, Islamists, farmers, students, workers, even state employees had united against Mubarak—the symbol of their frustration and the object of their ire. Nothing short of his resignation would send them home.
Rise of the brotherhood
The protests that toppled Mubarak were not particularly religious, leading some analysts to downplay the Muslim Brotherhood’s prospects in a democratic Egypt. Its leadership seemed out of step in the early days of the uprising, hesitating as liberals and secularists spilled into the streets. But when the Brotherhood finally did find its voice, its enduring call for a more pious, less corrupt, and more socially just society resonated with millions of Egyptians.
The Muslim Brotherhood—founded in the 1920s, but banned by Nasser in 1954—emerged as Egypt’s largest and most organized opposition movement, despite, or perhaps because of, frequent harassment from the government. As was its wont, the regime tried to penetrate and weaken all opposition groups, but the Muslim Brotherhood managed to survive by organizing through a network of mosques, religious schools, and charitable organizations beyond the reach of the regime. Operating medical clinics and social welfare programs for the poor, the Brotherhood filled the void left by a government too overwhelmed and too corrupt to govern. Slowly, over time, the party grew its support and when given the opportunity, proved it could translate that support into votes. Beginning in 2000, members of the Brotherhood were allowed to run for parliament as independent candidates, winning 17 of 454 seats. That figure jumped to 88 in 2005 and would likely have been much higher had the police not intervened at polling stations. (The party withdrew from the 2010 elections to protest widespread vote rigging.)
In December 2009, I met with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood to assess their outlook and understand their growing popularity. When a colleague and I arrived at the party’s nondescript headquarters in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood, we were told to wait outside. On the other side of a thick wooden door two dozen party members had gathered for the midday prayer. Leading them was the Brothers’ murshid, or guide, Mohammed Mahdi Akef. After the prayer, Akef’s aides led us into his modest office, where an aging, but animated Akef was on edge. He had recently announced that he was stepping down and the party was divided over his successor. His answers were succinct, his fists were clenched, and his brow furrowed beneath a dark dent in his forehead, an emblem of piety forged over a lifetime of ardent prayer.
To my surprise, Akef spoke at length about liberalism. Asked to describe the Brotherhood’s views in more detail, Akef mentioned many of the things that one year later would drive Egyptians to the streets. “For us, liberalism means freedom — freedom of creed, freedom of thought, freedom of expression. But,” he added, “there are limits.” When I asked where he draws the line, Akef instinctively fell back on the core tenets of Islam. The Brothers derive their definition of freedom from the Qur’an. “Islam is a comprehensive religion, a complete religion,” he explained. “It covers education, culture, economics, even tourism. In everything that relates to life, we are calling for the Islamic way.”
Such universalist views might alarm western observers, but for most Egyptians, the Brotherhood’s positions are not all that radical. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in April 2011, 62 percent of Egyptians agreed that “laws should strictly follow the teachings” of the Quran.4 This is roughly the same share of votes cast for Islamist parties in recent elections.
The road ahead
What does the Islamist electoral triumph mean for the future? Their supporters are hopeful that a new, more God-fearing government can restore their dignity, improve their lives, and restore the Egyptian nation. But there are plenty of reasons for pessimism. The underlying social problems that brought Mubarak to his knees are likely to persist. Thousands of Egyptian will continue moving to cities every day, with just half of them able to read. Officially, youth unemployment remains 25 percent. And the economy’s prospects will continue to slide, at least in the short run. Since the revolution, capital has fled the country with the Central Bank burning through $1 billion in foreign exchange reserves each month in order to defend the Egyptian pound. Rating agencies have steadily downgraded Egyptian debt and Egypt’s benchmark index, the EGX30, has lost half its value since January 1, 2011. Tourism – a principal source of revenue for Egypt – will take time to recover and could suffer from stricter views on alcohol consumption and appropriate dress. The Brotherhood has long been a champion of the poor, but it will be hard pressed to lift 30 million Egyptians out of poverty.
On the international front, an Egypt ruled by the Brotherhood will be a different actor. It will be less willing to do America’s bidding. It will be less docile with Israel and the cold peace that has reigned since the Camp David accords will grow colder still. But the doomsday scenarios of imminent war are wide of the mark. While the Brotherhood is occupied with Egypt’s myriad domestic problems, the military will take the lead in foreign policy, rejecting any move to abrogate the Camp David accords, which would cost it $1.3 billion dollars in annual American assistance.
That doesn’t mean the work of the United States is done. As troops leave Iraq and Afghanistan and isolationist voices grow louder in Washington, US leaders will be tempted to turn away. That would be a mistake. The new Egyptian government may not be to our liking, but it will represent the wishes of its people, which is in itself a mountainous improvement on the past. We should reinforce this budding democracy and seek to win Egyptians’ goodwill through our policies, rather than a tin-pot despot. We should offer our assistance, but not insist on it. And we should be patient. Egypt’s road ahead is long and full of potholes, but as its democracy matures and the liberal parties grow more sophisticated, the Islamists will grow less popular. In the meantime, we must stay engaged. There is too much at stake. By virtue of geography, population, and culture, Egypt’s Spring matters more than any other.
About the author
Joseph Yackley is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He spent 2009-2010 in Egypt as a Fulbright-Hays scholar and has held additional fellowships from the Robert Bosch Foundation, the U.S. Department of State, and the International Center for Journalists. This article is based on a chapter from “Risk Rules: How Local Politics Threaten the Global Economy” by Marvin Zonis, Dan Lefkovitz, Sam Wilkin, and Joseph Yackley (Agate B2, 2011).
2.Cherif Bassiouni made his comments at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. For an audio version of Bassiouni’s talk and a series of background papers he penned on Egypt, visit: www.thechicagocouncil.org