Worldview: What becomes of the Mideast revolts depends on Egypt

Sen. Joe Lieberman , cooperating with picture-taking Egyptians in Tahrir Square, sees hope for a secular democracy there.
Sen. Joe Lieberman , cooperating with picture-taking Egyptians in Tahrir Square, sees hope for a secular democracy there.
Posted: March 03, 2011

The Internet and the airwaves are clogged with contradictory predictions of what the Mideast upheavals will mean to the region - and to us.

I have conservative readers calling me an idiot for not understanding that the Egyptian revolution is a huge victory for the Islamists, even as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.) extols the hope for secular democracy in Cairo alongside his buddy, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.

Some pundits insist the Mideast revolts are a victory for al-Qaeda, or Iran, while others say the revolts undercut both. So, after 11 days in Cairo, I guess I should take a stab at prognostication.

Here goes: In the foreseeable, I don't think these upheavals will present a clear-cut victory for either democracy or Islam, as each shaken country will be dealing with very different internal circumstances. But the overall trend - including the impact on America's Mideast policy - will be set by what develops in Egypt.

And in Egypt, there's a decent chance that a more democratic government could emerge - including Islamists, but in a minority role.

Before I explain why democracy has a chance, let me detail why a more-democratic Egypt would be crucial for the region. In the other countries undergoing upheavals, the odds for a transition to stable democracy are far, far slimmer.

If Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi falls, he will leave a huge territory bereft of institutions and rent by tribal conflicts. In Yemen, where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is based, the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh could usher in tribal wars and a greater sway by radical clerics. This could pose a worrying threat to Saudi Arabia next door.

Tunisia may muddle through, although its economy is reeling. Bahrain may find some compromise solution - but its protests, based on grievances by the emirate's Shiite majority against Sunni rulers, can easily be manipulated by Shiite Iran.

So, the outcome of Egypt's revolution is crucial, and not just because of its size and its historic role as leader of the Arab world. If the Egyptian youth revolt leads to a non-Islamist democracy - even one with flaws - it would provide a counterpoint to the claim that "Islam is the answer."

A democratic Egypt would challenge the Iranian narrative that clerical rule is the future. It would help stabilize a post-Gadhafi Libya and a weak Tunisian democracy. It would provide a Sunni ally for Lebanese democrats who are trying to hold out against the pressures of Hezbollah.

Of course, a democratic Egypt would not be as unquestioning an ally - or as quiescent a peace partner to Israel - as was Hosni Mubarak. Public pressure would force it to push much harder for a Palestinian state. But, based on many interviews in Cairo, I don't believe the peace treaty with Israel would be breached. Egyptians don't want war, and the Egyptian military would still have a key say in foreign affairs.

This brings us to the question of whether an Egyptian democracy can emerge.

The argument against this possibility assumes that the Muslim Brotherhood - Egypt's best organized Islamist group, which is allowed to run candidates for parliament - will hijack the revolution. Yet the organizers of the demonstrations - and the vast bulk of the crowds - have not been Islamists. This revolution sought an end to corruption, and a representative government.

The skeptics point to the mammoth demonstration in Tahrir Square on Feb. 18, at which the radical Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi preached, as proof that the Muslim Brotherhood has already taken control of the streets. Supposedly, the whole crowd was shouting "on to Jerusalem" or some such words - proof of the coming Islamic putsch.

I was in that crowd. No such mass chant took place (there were only small pockets of chanters). The prayers led by Qaradawi took 30 minutes out of a celebration that continued for hours, during which the signs and chants of the crowd had almost nothing to do with Islam or Palestine.

That said, the outcome of the revolution is far from certain. The Egyptian army, which is overseeing the transition to new elections, may commit errors that enable the Brotherhood to punch far above its weight (at an estimated 20 percent support from the public).

On Monday, the army called for parliamentary elections in June. This fails to allow enough time for the groups that made the revolution to organize new political parties and mobilize the 80 percent of the public that usually doesn't vote.

Such an early ballot will benefit the Brotherhood - which is already organized - as well as the former governing party, which will no doubt return under a new name. Many of the young rebels believe the military wants to recreate the previous political scenario whereby there were only two political alternatives: the ruling elite and the scary Islamists. This makes the elite look preferable.

This would be a tragic error. Egypt is ripe for democratic change that could help steady a region in dizzying transition. Those who have the Egyptian military's ear - including its benefactors in Washington - should be sending this message loud and clear.


E-mail Trudy Rubin at trubin@phillynews.com.

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