The revolution in Egypt is not over. It has hardly begun. The removal of President Hosni Mubarak, whose trial many Egyptians view as a public relations stunt, has done nothing to alter the lock the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has on power, the economy and the political process. Those who once united in defiance of the Mubarak regime have, in frustration and anger, fragmented into antagonistic camps. Islamists of varying shades are pitted against secularists in virulent street confrontations. The trust and euphoria that once marked the uprising have given way to distrust and paranoia. And those who seek fundamental change and an open society have come to the sad conclusion that we have a long, long way to go.
The sectarian and religious tensions that once seethed beneath the surface of Egyptian society, kept in place by a brutal system of repression, including torture and fraudulent elections, have burst with fury upon the body politic. Where these torrents will lead us is anyone’s guess. But the mounting frustration with the slow pace of reform is political dynamite. The more the military council uses the familiar tools of fraud, force and repression to quell growing dissent, the more radical and antagonistic the opposition will become.
The SCAF, which took control in February with the ouster of Mubarak, failed to meet its promise to schedule parliamentary elections within six months. It sidetracked public discontent over the performance of the transitional government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, as well as discontent over its decision merely to amend the Constitution rather than draft a new one before elections, by propagating alarmist fears about threats to the country’s stability. The parliamentary elections, now scheduled to begin on November 28, do not signal any better hope for stability. The SCAF has postponed presidential elections until after the new Parliament writes a Constitution, a process that could take a year or more. And the de facto head of the country, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, has hung up his military uniform for a business suit and has begun to speak like a candidate for office, although the military leadership has assured Egyptians it will not put forward a presidential candidate.
If the elections are free and fair—something that remains very much in doubt—they will almost certainly see the Muslim Brotherhood take a plurality, perhaps a majority, of seats in Parliament. The military knows and fears this. Although the Brotherhood is demonized by Egyptian secularists and countries such as Israel and the United States, it is in fact one of the tamer and more moderate alternatives within the Islamist movement. Ever since its founding in 1928, it has promoted da’wa, social reform and political participation. Its declared approach is nonviolence (rare exceptions being its resistance to the British occupation and the attempt to assassinate former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954). The Brotherhood has pursued these goals covertly, during times of repression under military regimes, as well as overtly, during brief periods of political opening. It has mobilized millions of followers through charities, unions and social work, and has been especially successful in rural areas. In recent years the Brotherhood has moderated some of its longstanding demands, such as for the application of Sharia law, in an attempt to reach out to secularists.
The Brotherhood presented itself right after the ouster of Mubarak as a potential stabilizing force by embracing civil government and democratic ideals and by praising the model of moderate Islamist politics practiced by Turkey’s ruling AKP Party. But the military, backed by Washington, looks set to prevent the Brotherhood from achieving significant political power, a move that would not only discredit its call for nonviolence but also empower some very disturbing groups that have risen in prominence since the removal of Mubarak. The untimely release from prison of prominent jihadists and other radical Islamist figures is now read as a tactical move by the SCAF to undermine the power of the Brotherhood, to divide Islamist voters and to send a message to secularists that the military is needed to maintain stability.