Misconceptions about the Egyptian crisis

Monday, January 31, 2011; 8:13 PM

EGYPT ON Monday continued to teeter between a popular revolution that would remove President Hosni Mubarak and a forcible restoration of order by the police and Army. The opposition called for mass demonstrations on Tuesday; the regime did its best to impede them by canceling trains and other transportation and continuing to block the Internet.

While Washington and the world anxiously awaited the outcome of that test of strength, debate continued on the stakes and the dangers of the Egyptian revolt. Unfortunately, the discussion has been infected by considerable misinformation. Several common but mistaken notions are in particular need of correction: that the protesters have no leaders or platform; that radical Islamists are likely to assume power in a post-Mubarak Egypt; and that the United States has little ability to influence the outcome of the crisis.

Though they surprised many in Washington - including the Obama administration - the Jan. 25 demonstrations that touched off Egypt's rebellion were anything but spontaneous. They were carefully organized by an opposition coalition, led by the April 6 movement - a secular organization dominated by young people. The movement originated three years ago, when it organized a day of protests and strikes; its Facebook group has nearly 90,000 members. April 6 is one of several broad secular coalitions that formed in recent years to promote democracy in Egypt. Another, led by former U.N. nuclear energy official Mohamed ElBaradei, has more than 240,000 Facebook members.

Over the weekend, most of the secular opposition groups and the banned Muslim Brotherhood met to form a joint platform. They called for Tuesday's mass demonstration and worked toward consensus on a platform. This probably will call for a transitional government, possibly headed by Mr. ElBaradei, that would lift political restrictions and lay the groundwork for free and fair elections. The coalition contains business owners, former members of parliament and defectors from the regime, and it has the capacity to oversee a political transition.

The Muslim Brotherhood remains Egypt's best-organized opposition movement, but so far it has played a marginal role in the demonstrations. Its long-term aim of establishing an Islamic government in Egypt is at odds with what the mostly secular and middle-class demonstrators have been calling for: the democratization and modernization of the country. The Brotherhood, unlike its Palestinian offshoot Hamas, abandoned violence decades ago.

No one knows how the Islamists would fare in a free election, since one has not been held in Egypt during the past half-century. But many Egyptian analysts believe an Islamist party would attract a minority of voters and would be unlikely, in the short term, to come to power. In the longer term, the best defense against it is well-organized and dynamic secular parties - which will only be possible if the current authoritarian regime is dismantled.

The most misguided assertion in Washington holds that the United States lacks the capacity to influence the outcome of the Egyptian crisis. In fact, both sides in Egypt have been aggressively appealing for support from the Obama administration, and for good reason - the United States supplies $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt, including well more than $1 billion for the Egyptian military. The White House has rightly hinted that that aid is now at stake, and on Sunday Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton finally announced U.S. support for a "transition" to "real democracy." Both in public and in every other communications channel, the administration should be making explicit the connection between future funding for the Egyptian military and that democratic transition.

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