There are two sharply contrasting Western cliché images attached to the Egyptian revolution and, more broadly, to the Arab Spring. One is beautiful, young Facebook and Twitter-using women revolutionaries, explaining in perfect English their immaculate secular, liberal goals. Hurrah, hurrah. The other is swarthy, hatchet-bearded Islamist men, exploiting a brief moment of semi-democracy to impose their violent, theocratic, misogynist oppression. Boo, boo. Arab Spring, Arab Fall.
As so often, there’s a grain of truth in each cliché. There are fantastic, brave, bright young women and men here who have faced down extreme intimidation of many kinds (from police bullets to sexual harassment) and deserve our total, unstinting solidarity and support. And there are, indeed, some Islamist monsters. But the cliché images miss two larger and more important truths.
First, the biggest, most immediate obstacle to freedom in Egypt today, the force that’s actively trying to roll back the revolution, is not the Muslim Brotherhood but the military-dominated security state that has run Egypt for 60 years and is now identified with the acronym SCAF, for Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. It’s SCAF that recently had two hideous makeshift walls of giant concrete blocks built – reminding me irresistibly of photos of the Berlin Wall in its early days – to block access to Tahrir Square and nearby government offices.
They have commanded the legions of spies, goons and torturers who, for decades, have terrorized secularists, Salafists, Coptic Christians and ordinary people. More recently, they have locked up bloggers just for daring to criticize them. They control large parts of the economy – estimates vary from 10 per cent to 40 per cent. So much, anyway, that when the central bank’s reserves get depleted, they can casually pass it $1-billion, “as if they’d found it down the back of the sofa,” one observer said.
It’s SCAF that’s wrangling with the elected parliament to keep control of the interior as well as defence ministries, and the defence budget beyond any scrutiny. Despite receiving some $1.3-billion in military aid from Washington, they have cocked the most amazing snook at the United States by putting on trial 43 Western NGO and Egyptian activists, including the son of the U.S. Transportation Secretary. In short, SCAF is still the biggest blockade on Egypt’s long road to freedom.
Second, insofar as Egypt had partly free and partly fair elections, Islamists won. Between them, the Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist al-Nour party have a large majority in both houses of parliament. Like them or loathe them, they – not the urban, educated youth who spearheaded the revolution in Tahrir Square – have, for now, won politically. That’s not surprising in a conservative, majority Muslim society, where the Muslim Brotherhood had a formidable underground organization. The FJP compromises and makes deals with the military-security state, but will also try to clip its wings.
These people we lump together as Islamists come in many shapes and sizes: hard and soft, dogmatic and pragmatic. Some prioritize free-market economics, others social welfare, others again, cultural and religious conservatism. Across the lands of the Arab Spring, it matters enormously which kinds of Islamists gain the upper hand, in what context, under which internal and external constraints. For now, the FJP’s priorities in Egypt seem clear: to show some improvements in the economy, welfare and personal security. Otherwise, it knows it’ll lose popularity and, therefore, votes.
A year after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, this is not what the young revolutionaries of Tahrir Square dreamed of. It’s not what we Western secular liberals dreamed of. It’s not, in its consequences, another 1989. But nor is it 1979 in Iran, a rainbow revolution rapidly degenerating into an oppressive Islamic theocracy. It’s Egypt 2012. Even secular liberal and Coptic Christian friends say a pragmatic Islamist government, wrangling a gradual reduction of the hypertrophied military, security and bureaucratic state, may be the best they can expect in the near future.
If those of us who live in more prosperous and free countries want to help Egypt’s transition – and, realistically, that help will only be at the margins – we need to start by understanding what’s happening on the ground, in all its dusty, potholed complexity. We have nothing to lose but our clichés.
Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.