Egypt’s Islamist prospects

Many at home and abroad are apprehensive of an eventual Islamist takeover should the popular revolt in Egypt lead to fundamental changes in the governing regime. The opposite is more likely. The Islamist trend can be properly contained within a more open society epitomized by the protesters. It's the persistence of the status quo that is the more likely harbinger of theocracy.      

I had never imagined that I would one day seek shelter among Islamists. Yet this is what happened on a recent afternoon near Tahrir Square. On a flyover bridge overlooking the square, Mubarak acolytes were stalking foreigners. Some non-Egyptians were beaten up on the spot; others were delivered to the authorities for detention. My  attire attracted attention, and I found myself assailed by agitated gangs, their wide-eyed members screaming for the ID card proving my "Egyptianness." They were taking no chances, they said, since allied gangs had already caught foreign agents provocateurs. The captured foreigners were allegedly part of a plot aimed at destabilizing the country–a purported conspiracy that government media was feverishly flogging.

Pursued by an exceptionally frenzied pro-Mubarak cluster, I scurried down the steps towards the anti-regime demonstrators. I ended up among a group of bearded men who welcomed me with ironic smiles. As an op-ed writer, I had been quite scathingly critical, often sarcastically so, of the Islamist movement, so I felt uneasy surrounded by a large group of its activists. But my fears were unfounded, as this group of Islamists had already internalized the norms of coexistence among the highly diverse crowd inhabiting Tahrir.

The Muslim Brotherhood took no part in the initial protests that sparked the revolt. It subsequently failed to properly mobilize or lead in the following weeks, due to internal fighting and the lack of a charismatic leadership. Over the following weeks, the Tahrir Islamists remained a surprisingly small minority who tolerated the many young women in tight jeans, the music concerts with their "Woodstock on the Nile" tones, and the presence of foreigners, including American University in Cairo students who came with their Egyptian friends. They also refrained from displaying Islamist slogans and took part in protecting a Christian mass. In the terminology of political philosopher John Rawls, this is the sort of interaction that, if nurtured, could form the nucleus of an "overlapping consensus" concerning the future of Egypt’s factious society–a consensus that excludes political positions and practices that are completely unacceptable to some segments of society.    

The mood amongst the pro-Mubarak crowd on the bridge was decidedly different. Its members came predominantly from the slums surrounding Cairo and lived from day to day. Brief conversations with the tamer among them revealed that they believed their livelihoods were at risk as a result of the chaos sown by foreign plotters and their local collaborators. Their capacity for assimilating anything different from what was drilled into them was limited at best. Unlike many in Tahrir, none held any BlackBerries; their preferred methods of communication ranged from sticks and stones to the occasional assault rifle.

The regime that set those Nile-bound skinheads on the loose has received an average of $2 billion in annual aid from the United States since 1979, much of it in the form of military assistance. It's party to a formal partnership agreement with the European Union and its leader has been feted worldwide as a wise guardian of stability. All the while it actively promoted anti-Western propaganda in an effort to divert popular anger at its dire failures, a tactic that it tuned to perfection during the current crisis.  

And it's the regime that has persistently and systematically weakened all secular opposition in an effort to sell itself as the only alternative to Islamist domination. In the absence of fundamental reform, the survival of this regime, or the espousal of its insidious strategies by a new governing body,  will lead to further deterioration of Egyptian secular society and even more vehement anti-Western incitement and estrangement from contemporary world culture. And if this mostly secular revolution is contained and drained or meaning, the next uprising may very well be led by those willing to pay the price of resistance in the form of martyrdom. And they will be unlikely to want to share power following an eventual victory.
For now, the hope remains that the pluralist vision that transpired in Tahrir through the past weeks survives and pervades post-Mubarak Egypt.   

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