Will Egypt Repeat the Mistakes of Iran?

The triangular confrontations among the military, the Islamists, and the revolutionaries continue in Egypt. The revolutionaries who started the uprising are pushed to the background. The military survived because the revolution was aborted. Taking advantage of this situation, the Islamists used their massive organizational and ideological capabilities to win the majority of seats in the hastily arranged parliamentary elections in January.

To avoid scaring the Egyptians and the West, the Muslim Brotherhood originally announced that it had no eye on the presidency or the executive branch. It was hoping to gradually push its archaic policies forward through legislation. However, while the revolutionaries were suppressed and in disarray, and the military was busy trying to maintain the status quo, the Muslim Brotherhood moved another step forward and nominated first Khairat el-Shater and then Mohammed Morsi as its candidate for presidency. At the same time, the military put forward its favourite candidate, Ahmed Shafiq. With the first round of elections over, Egyptians are now forced to choose the lesser of these two evils – but whom should they choose?

At an international conference on the Middle East at York University in Toronto earlier this month, I posed this provocative question. As expected, views varied. The responses, however, reminded me of the debates and discussions we had in Iran during the 1979 revolution. The Iranian revolution against the Shah was similarly started by intellectuals, professionals, students, and workers, and, in the absence of a strong secular democratic leader, the Islamists took over, ironically supported by the revolutionaries. There is a real danger of the same thing happening in Egypt today.

The choice for Egyptians is a difficult one. Voting for Shafiq might mean the end of demands for major changes and, in a sense, might also mean exoneration of the old regime. Voting for Morsi, on the other hand, might mean an endorsement of the backward policies of the Muslim Brotherhood. The first round of elections showed that the vast majority of the population is against both of these candidates, each of them gaining less than 25 per cent of the votes. It is particularly noteworthy that the Muslim Brotherhood, despite all its claims, represents only a minority of the population.

Some people suggest a third option of boycotting the election altogether in order to avoid giving credibility to the untimely election and the choice between two undesirable candidates. No doubt, boycotting elections can be an effective strategy in certain situations, setting the stage for future options. A successful boycott would require the majority of Egyptians to join the campaign to discredit the elections. Progressive Egyptian activists know this well. If there were a chance of a successful boycott taking place, then this would be the right thing to do. It would be even better if there were a chance that the populace could force the military establishment to nullify the hasty election altogether. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case for Egypt at present. With this option removed, then, one of the candidates will ride the tide and win the presidency.

The main question now is this: Under whose presidency will the progressive forces have a better chance of working for change, and for better choices in the future?

Related: The Egypt of Tomorrow

Drawing from the experience of Iran, I argue that Morsi may be the dangerous option. If the Muslim Brotherhood wins the election, it will control Parliament, the presidency, and the government, and will soon take over the judiciary. With all branches of state under its control, the Brotherhood will move Egypt towards a Sharia-based society. It will not be able to establish an Islamic state as Iran did – partly because the old regime has not completely collapsed – but the Muslim Brotherhood is a very pragmatic and opportunistic organization, and can make deals with the military, among others, against the progressive forces.

For the West (especially the United States), the main concern about the possibility of Morsi’s election is what it would mean for Egypt’s foreign policy (particularly its relations with Israel) and economic policy. On these issues, the West need not be worried, at least for the foreseeable future. In terms of relations with Israel, while the Muslim Brotherhood would not keep the cozy relations that existed during the time of Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat, it would not change the Camp David Accords, nor would it follow a confrontational policy, as it is well aware of what the consequences would be. As for economic policy, the Brothers are capitalists par excellence. The Muslim Brotherhood’s first choice of presidential candidate, Khairat el-Shater (who was disqualified due to his recent prison record), is a millionaire and a staunch supporter of market economy and privatization. There are rumours that he may be chosen as prime minister. If that happens, he will almost certainly be a favourite of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and for the West’s neo-liberal establishments.

The main danger lies in the internal politics of Egypt and how issues of human rights, women’s status, democratic freedoms, and minority rights would be affected by the implementation of religious laws. These are the issues about which the U.S. administration and its allies would care the least, despite all their hypocritical rhetoric. As a religious populist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood would manipulate people’s religious beliefs to mobilize them against the progressive forces.

Related: Iran's Power Struggle Lacks a Good Guy

Some Egyptian friends like our Palestinian and other Arab friends believe that their Islamist fundamentalists are not as bad as Iranian fundamentalists. They are simply wrong. The Iranian fundamentalists also played it nice before they consolidated their power and eliminated the progressive forces. Over time, however, the clerical oligarchy became a clerical-military oligarchy, and then a clerical-military-industrial oligarchy. Many of the poor, uneducated foot soldiers of the Mahdi (messiah) became millionaire industrialists with doctorate degrees. Progressive forces were eliminated, and even the more honest religious figures were removed from the scene or sent to jail.

There is another illusion that if the Islamists come to power, they will discredit themselves and show their true face to the public – as has been the case with the present Islamic regime in Iran – and that this will make it easier to oust them. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as Iranians have learned the hard way.

Secular democratic forces in Egypt have the power to prevent the Islamists from coming to power in the first place. While voting for Shafiq may seem like a step back toward the old regime, Egypt is not the same as it once was: There is no way that Egypt would go back to the military dictatorship of the Free Officers, and the military is not as strong as before. Furthermore, despite the fact that it is not yet defined in the present constitutional mess, the president’s power will not be the same as it was. With military and presidential power held in check, progressive forces would work and push for change.

Voting for Shafiq is not an easy decision, but the alternative is worse.

A version of this article was published on Open Democracy on June 10, 2012.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.