As street riots continue in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, Americans should keep in mind both the threat and promise in the regional upheaval. Here are three sources of both:
The Muslim Brotherhood:
Some have suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood has evolved into primarily a social service organization without much political influence, a minor player in the current show.
As Sunday’s New York Times reported from the streets of Cairo: “There have been many signs of Brotherhood members marching and chanting in the crowd. But the crowds – mostly spontaneous – were so large that the Brotherhood’s members seemed far from dominant. Questions about the Brotherhood elicited shouting matches among protesters, with some embracing it and others against it.”
The Bolsheviks did not dominate the early stages of the Russian Revolution. Yet, as many have noted, Lenin knew his mind and no one else did and he was unbending in his pursuit of his purpose. He exploited the evolving chaos. In its capacity for focus and violence, the Brotherhood resembles the Bolsheviks.
It was founded in 1928 in Egypt by a schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna, and ruthlessness was part of its founding philosophy. Banna created a paramilitary arm to the Brotherhood, modeling it after the Nazi SS. As University of London professor Efraim Karsh wrote in his 2006 volume Islamic Imperialism, “Banna was an unabashed admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, who ‘guided their peoples to unity, order, regeneration, power, and glory.’”
Following the examples of the Nazis and fascists, Banna was perhaps the Middle East’s first modern synthesizer of the tactic of terror, the cult of death, and the lust for conquest. He wished, Karsh noted, to inculcate Egypt’s young people “with the virtues of death and martyrdom in the quest of Allah’s universal empire. ‘Death is an art,’ he famously wrote, ‘and the most exquisite of arts when practiced by the skillful artist.’”
Neither peace nor justice benefit from this group taking power in Cairo.
That’s the threat. What is the promise?
The Legitimacy Deficit:
With the exception of Turkey and Iran, the Middle Eastern landscape of today is a Western invention. Britain and France drew most of the present borders in the years immediately following World War I. Iraq, for example, was the product of the imperfect fusing of several Ottoman provinces.
As in Africa, the result of this colonial country creating has been lands of political pathologies. Turkey, Jordan, and Israel have the region’s sole claims on the legitimacy that even an element of popular sovereignty confers, and only Israel’s claim is secure.
But for those regimes suffering under a legitimacy deficit, hostility against Israel has served as a means of giving ballast to an uncertain stability. Building up Israel as a common enemy has given ruling factions a reason to exist.
There is a paradox here. Yes, the region may pass through a difficult and even violent transition if the upheavals in Egypt spread. But establishing regimes secure in the legitimacy that government by consent of the governed confers may be the essential element to regional peace.
Regarding Egypt, which has had a peace agreement with Israel since the late 70s, establishing some form of popular sovereignty may be essential for locking in that agreement for the decades to come.
More is driving events than we can see:
In Egypt as throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, new classes are rising. The fall of communism and the freeing of markets ignited the energy of the shopkeeper, the small craftsman, the local manufacturer, and those who aspired to be them.
Many if not most of these “new men and women” work in what economist Hernando de Soto, in his The Mystery of Capital (published in 2000), labeled the “informal sector.” They make their livings in businesses outside local legal systems, because in Egypt as in most Third World countries, it is all but impossible to create new businesses or acquire new property within the law.
De Soto estimates that in Egypt 92 percent of city dwellers and 83 percent of the rural population live in homes without clear legal title, that is, in informal sector homes. Overall, he calculates, the value of Egyptian wealth locked up in informal sector as “thirty times the value of all shares on the Cairo Stock Exchange and . . . fifty-five times all foreign direct investment.”
In a largely traditional society like Egypt, this rising class is profoundly disturbing to established ways. The norm has been to do things the way your grandparents and their grandparents did things and to depend on a system of family and favors that defined society for centuries. This new and vast “middle class” is made up of people who, while still poor by U.S. standards, are fueling the engines of their aspirations with the energy of the marketplace to break free from the old ways.
One critical way of breaking free is to demand political rights and a political role, to strive, that is, to achieve the promise.