The prospects for democracy in Egypt will be affected by regional developments, and will also affect them in turn. While important elements in Egyptian society have been virtually ignored, Islamists’ role has been greatly exaggerated in Western discourse, and nowhere more so than in Israel. Arab regimes that are more responsive to their peoples’ voices may force Israel to change its policies, but that will ultimately benefit the country’s own interests.
It is hard to fully articulate the magnitude of yesterday’s events in Egypt. The success of massive popular protests in removing Mubarak from power is an amazing development, which could shape the entire region for decades to come. It could also fizzle out, of course, with a quick return to business as usual for the region’s many tyrannies. How can one assess the prospects for the future?
Regional dynamics are a key component. The removal of autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt has already sent ripple waves throughout the Arab world. Some commentators are rushing to highlight how different these two countries are, and express skepticism about the revolution’s ability to spread throughout the region. But some astute observers said the same things about the potential for spillover from Tunisia to Egypt.
So far, in Algeria, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq, as well as outside the Arab world, in Iran, hopeful signs of protest and pledges of reform do not yet seem to undermine the regimes’ authority. Yemen may be closer to the brink, although change there may assume a more moderate and gradual form than in Egypt. Any sign of change in Saudi Arabia will be watched very closely, as instability in the world’s largest oil producer could have immediate global impact.
Although each country has its own unique characteristics, Egypt’s central position in the Arab world, which could be revitalized by recent events, indicates that the potential for contagion is significant. The fall of further authoritarian regimes could bolster prospects for democracy in Egypt itself. At the same time, citizens and potential protesters throughout the region will look to Egypt: a democratic success there could embolden many in the Middle East, and assuage the fears of those who fear instability or the emergence of even worse tyranny.
The typical analysis in the English-speaking media paints a simplistic and often misleading picture regarding Egypt, focusing on the regime, the military, the protesters and the Muslim brotherhood. In fact, none of these elements is monolithic, and many other groups should also be considered. In this context, I highly recommended Paul Amar’s fascinating and indispensible analysis.
In addition, the implications of the prominent role of women in the protests have yet to be fully assessed, and could prove critical. One group that is almost completely overlooked is Egyptian villagers. Figures vary, but it seems that the majority of the country’s population still lives in areas defined as rural, and that almost a third of the workforce are employed in agriculture. Media coverage has focused on the major cities, but what little there is about other areas, is actually quite encouraging. And of course, the multiplicity of social forces and positions is itself a hopeful sign that a pluralistic society cant take root.
Of all Egypt’s diversity, the intense Western discussion of Islamists’ role in Egypt is disproportionate to their actual influence; and the depiction of the Muslim Brotherhood as a dangerous anti-democratic force obscures the complexity of their positions. Even in the unlikely scenario they prove to be the dominant political force in a democratic Egypt, there is no reason to think they will promote Iranian-style policies. Even the American intelligence community doubts that they intend to challenge the secular political order, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually welcomed their inclusion in the abortive negotiations between the opposition and Mubarak’s regime.
This leaves Israel’s political-security establishment, and some of its rabid right-wing allies in the US, as the main peddlers of the Egypt-as-Iran narrative. A former Mossad chief’s article in Huffington Post is a good example of this genre. Riddled with gross historical and factual errors, it reflects both the ignorance and the hysteria emanating from Israel’s so-called “experts”.
Mubarak has been steadfast ally of Israel’s governments, and that explains some of the establishment’s concern. Though the peace treaty is very unlikely to be overturned, any regime which is more responsive to the people’s wishes will surely be less cooperative with the occupation and punitive policies towards the Palestinian population. As Peter Beinart notes, democratic change will mean that Israel must try to gain support from Arab publics, and not just from their rulers. Although this will ultimately benefit our country, it will surely be a challenge for those who currently rule it. Another effect of contagion, perhaps?