From the American perspective, the transition now underway in Egypt confirms John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous appraisal of politics as a choice between “the disastrous and the unpalatable.”
What the Obama administration must dread is not the prospect of Cairo repeating the disaster that was Tehran in 1979 but St. Petersburg in 1917, when one revolution — its leadership democratic but hopelessly divided — was followed within months by a second, its leaders murderously disciplined and malevolently focused. In other words, will Mohamed ElBaradei or some other liberal reformer ultimately play Kerensky to some as-yet-obscure Islamist strongman when the Muslim Brotherhood seizes power, as the Bolsheviks did from the parliamentary democracy to which the czar handed power when he abdicated?
That possibility arises because a democratic or more broadly based Egyptian government inevitably is going to include the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928 and is the world’s oldest and largest Islamist organization. History suggests that political liberalization, no matter who wins it, sets off its own revolution of rising expectations. And whoever succeeds Hosni Mubarak will have a hellish time satisfying the needs of a country where more than 30 million people live on $2 a day or less, and where the population includes more unemployed university graduates than any other in the world.
Moreover, since decolonization, secular Arab regimes haven’t excelled at much but repression. That makes a focused organization like the Muslim Brotherhood, with its twin appeals to folk piety and populist politics, not simply a ready alternative but the only one. The handful of scholars who’ve studied the Muslim Brotherhood agree that the organization contains both hard-line Islamists and more flexible “reformers,” though they’re divided on which faction predominates.
Take, for example, the Brotherhood’s claim of rejecting violence while supporting attacks on Israel. Palestinian terrorism, it insists, isn’t violence but “resistance.”
Some analysts have compared the Brotherhood’s latest iteration to the West’s Christian Democratic parties, but that simply doesn’t wash. No Christian Democrat ever has claimed that the party’s creed is the only legitimate organizing principle for every aspect of personal, communal and political life, as the Muslim Brotherhood has for more than 80 years. Nor has any Christian Democratic party ever made the transnational claims the Brotherhood does — its ultimate goal being the restoration of an Islamic caliphate stretching from the South China Sea to the Pyrenees.
There’s also no looking away from the fact that the Brotherhood isn’t just committed to the Palestinian cause or hostile to political Zionism, which it has been since its founding. It’s a thoroughly anti-Semitic organization that has actively distributed Arab-language editions of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and actively collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. It also advocates discrimination against women and believes that non-Muslims should not be allowed to hold office.
Finally, we can’t ignore the fact that in the two places where offshoots of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have managed to gain political power — Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the wretched cabal in Sudan — the results have been both bloody and disastrous.
As uncertain and fraught with danger as the prospects may be, there also are facts on the ground that not even the most committed of the Brotherhood’s hard men will be able to ignore. One is that, for all the political window dressing with which Mubarak has surrounded himself, Egypt is — as it has been since Gamal Abdel Nasser — a military dictatorship. The army and its economic interests are woven throughout the fabric of the country’s society, and the generals aren’t likely to sit in their villas and watch all that swept away for the sake of Sharia.
What would follow from a military coup wouldn’t be pleasant for the Egyptian people, but neither would the imposition of an Islamic regime.
There’s also the hard reality that Egypt can’t feed itself; it is the world’s largest importer of grain, much of which it pays for with aid from the United States. That’s leverage. So too is the fact that the Egyptian army no longer is in a position to threaten our closest ally in the region, Israel, because we equip Cairo’s forces, and they couldn’t fight a war without being resupplied.
The United States has found a way to maintain close relations with the hard-line Islamic fundamentalist regime in Saudi Arabia and with the “soft” Islamists now in power in Turkey. It won’t be easy or comfortable, but we probably can find a similar accommodation with Egypt — particularly because there isn’t any choice.
• Timothy Rutten is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.