These days you can see anything in Egyptian politics that you want to see. If you would like to paint a hopeful picture of a young aspiring democracy, you can focus on the political activism of the street, the desire of the youth to participate in civic life, or public demands that the military get out of government and back to the barracks — fast.
But you can also see scenarios that cause a fair amount of hand-wringing, especially in Washington. The question of greatest concern is how powerful the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamist groups could be in the new Egypt. The overwhelming support for the constitutional amendments on March 19 — a vote heavily supported by the Muslim Brotherhood — is adding to many people’s fears that religion will become a dominant political force. But you don’t need to speculate about the intentions of Islamist groups to see how a democratic Egypt puts us in uncharted waters. Just look at some of the liberal political parties and youth, many of whom helped spearhead the revolution in Tahrir Square.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Cairo a couple weeks ago, a large contingent of Egyptian youth groups, including the April 6th Movement, declined to meet with her. Mohamed Adel, one of the leaders of the April 6th movement, told me that, given past U.S. administrations’ support for Mubarak, it was just bad politics for the youth to be taking meetings with the U.S. secretary of state. Or take Ayman Nour, a prominent leader of a liberal opposition party who spent four years in prison after challenging Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election. Within days of Mubarak’s ouster, Nour was saying that the 1978 Camp David Accords, which laid the bedrock for peace between Egypt and Israel, had effectively “come to an end.”
It shouldn’t come as a shock that politicians, even liberal ones, are engaging in political posturing. That’s a fact of life. Nor should it shock anyone that being overtly pro-American can be bad for your political health. That is as true in parts of Europe and Asia as in the Middle East. But the reason we shouldn’t just begin to assume the worst is because another facet of democratic political life is just beginning to show signs of life in Egypt: traditional, hard-knuckled political campaigning.
An early example comes from Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition voice since the former nuclear watchdog returned to Egypt last year to challenge Mubarak. Two weeks ago, the ElBaradei camp released what appears to be the first campaign ad of the 2011 Egyptian presidential campaign. The Arabic-language ad targets Amr Moussa, the current secretary general of the Arab League, and by many people’s account, the likely front-runner in this fall’s presidential election. The ad begins with footage of Amr Moussa being interviewed on Egyptian television before the revolution.
After being asked by the interviewer whom he will vote for in the upcoming elections, Moussa says, “If Mubarak is nominated, I will vote for him.”
The interviewer replies, “No matter who runs against him.”
To which, Moussa responds, “Look, as long as Mubarak is nominated, I know him well, I will vote for him.” James Carville couldn’t have done it any better.
Politics is a completely different game in a young democratic system. Intelligence and persuasion actually matter now, as opposed to the rigged set-up in the old authoritarian system. Moussa may have some big advantages — including being the preferred choice of the military — but he is going to need to learn how democratic politics works quickly or he will find himself tarred as “Mubarak’s man.”
And democratic politics is already posing a challenge for that other group, the Muslim Brotherhood. It was easy for the brotherhood to stand together when it was united in its opposition to Mubarak. But with the old dictator out of the way, divisions are showing among the Muslim Brothers as well. Young members have long been agitating for a greater role, and have begun to see more affinity for political groups outside their religious faith. Senior members have already begun to announce the formation of separate political parties that run on a spectrum of more liberal to conservative views. The Muslim Brotherhood will be an important force in Egyptian political life, but it is not the monolith many fear.
That point was first brought home to me last year, 11 months before Mubarak was forced from power. I met Mostafa El-Naggar, a well known blogger and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, at a coffee shop in Tahrir Square. Even then, El-Naggar told me that the longstanding political forces were fracturing. “People are fed up with current political ideologies that exist in Egypt. There is a general feeling among us youth that none of the existing political movements represent us,” El-Naggar told me. “But there is agreement that democracy comes first, freedom first, and then everyone can fight for whatever they want.”
That fight is just beginning.