Tahrir Square is packed with people hugging each other, waving Egyptian flags, weeping in joy at their success. Their pharoah has fallen, and they can claim credit. This scene is from two years ago, at the start of the Arab uprisings – a string of mass protests that shook the region and, in some cases, led to new governments in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen as well as Egypt.
But this week, Cairo was once again was awash in flags and beatific masses. And it’s as if the revolution is running in reverse: The crowd has been celebrating the ouster of the new leadership they once cheered. Instead of fighting supporters of Hosni Mubarak, angry mobs have stormed and burned the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters. Another crowd broke into their more secretive offices, located in a nondescript building on an island in the Nile, and now shows scars of forcible entry and a spot where a proud party plaque has been ripped off a door.
“They’re gone,” the building’s security guard told me, referring to Brotherhood members who had fled just ahead of the mob. “They won’t be back.”
Don’t be so sure. All this is part of a larger see-saw battle between the forces of political Islam on the one hand and the military forces of autocratic regimes on the other – a battle that has held this country, and much of the region, in its grip for nearly a century.
Egypt is not only the most populous and powerful country in the Middle East, it is a bellwether for the state of the Islamic politics. The Muslim Brotherhood formed here in 1928 and has since influenced countless groups in their struggles against colonialism, European influence and their own countries’ autocratic regimes.
Look behind the Iranian revolution of 1979, for example, and you find the writings of Sayid Qutb, a leading figure in the Brotherhood. See the movement’s sway in the Palestinian intifada of the 1980s, in Algeria of the early 1990s, even in Turkey’s shift to the Justice and Development Party a decade ago.
Now, however, the ousting of this group raises questions about whether political Islam can be trusted to remain democratic. And how Egypt responds to the current backlash will set the agenda across the Middle East for a generation to come.
The appeal of political Islam is simple: Movements inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood – whether in Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia or Palestine – offer solace and support to those who see themselves as victimized by colonial or European influence, or occupying powers. They speak to people who feel unempowered, even unwelcome, in their own countries.
In December of 1991, amid Algeria’s first free and open election, I met Sebti, a 33-year-old engineer who epitomized this trend.
Sebti joined me for breakfast one day at Algiers’ most elegant hotel. In his old buttonless overcoat, which he refused to remove, no doubt because of his shabby sweater underneath, he felt distinctly out of place. He was a professional but felt uncomfortable in a hotel that had been the built for the French and used by the European Allies in the Second World War.
He had been among the thousands of people who had kneeled in the streets of Algiers outside mosques that were too crowded to hold everyone for Friday prayers. He had learned English at the British Council, but for all his adult years, Sebti had struggled to gain an education and international awareness.
He joined the the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a group that took its cue from the Brotherhood’s success – and the kind of movement that had been banned by corrupt Algerian regimes since shortly after the country fought a bloody war to oust the French in the early 1960s – because it offered people like him a real chance at success.
The FIS, allowed to run by an enlightened president, Chadli Bendjedid, campaigned on a message of honesty, the free market and respect for women. The party triumphed in the first round of parliamentary elections, and stood poised to win the second round of voting to form a government.
Identifying and supporting professionals is a hallmark of Brotherhood movements not only in Algeria but across the region. Often, the movement has fielded candidates for leadership from professional associations.