Why Egypt 2011 Is Not Iran 1979

Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979 | Informed Comment

Egypt is, unlike Iran, not primarily an oil state. Its sources of revenue are tourism, Suez Canal tolls, manufactured and agricultural exports, and strategic rent (the $1.5 bn. or so in aid from the US comes under this heading). Egypt depends on the rest of the world for grain imports. Were it to adopt a radical and defiant ideology like that of Iran, all its major sources of income would suddenly evaporate, and it might have trouble even just getting enough imported food.

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So to recapitulate. The white collar and labor activists are far more central to the organization of the Egyptian protests than had been their counterparts in the Iranian Revolution. The Egyptian “bazaar” is much less tied to the Muslim clergy than was the case in Iran, and far less likely to fund clerical politicians. Whereas Iran’s bazaar merchants often suffered from Western competition, Egypt’s bazaar depends centrally on Western tourism. Secular parties, if we count the NDP, have an organizational advantage over the religious ones, since they have been freer to meet and act under Mubarak. It is not clear that the law banning religious parties will be changed, in which case the Brotherhood would again be stuck with running its candidates under other rubrics. And, Sunni Muslims don’t have a doctrine of owing implicit obedience to their clergy, and the clergy are not as important in Sunni religious life as the Shiite Ayatollahs are in Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood, a largely lay organization, has a lot of support, but it is not clear that they could gain more than about a third of seats even if they were able to run in free elections.

One of the sources of the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity was its opposition to Mubarak, and it may actually lose followers without him around. Other religious politicians and entrepreneurs may proliferate, in a freer atmosphere, dividing the religious section of the electorate. And, the Brotherhood could well evolve to be more like Turkey’s Justice and Development [AK] Party than like its old, sectarian, underground self. There is nothing in MB ideology that forbids participation in parliamentary democracy, even though it was not exactly a big theme of its founder, Hasan al-Banna.

Some analysts read off support for the MB from Egyptians’ religiosity. Egyptians have been undergoing a religious revival in the past couple of decades. You have to think about them like southern evangelicals in the US. When I am in Egypt it reminds me a lot of South Carolina in that regard. But that people go to mosque, or that their women wear headscarves, or that they value religion, does not necessarily translate into them voting for a sectarian and somewhat cliquish group like the Muslim Brotherhood. Many pious Muslims are factory workers and so closer to April 6 than to the Brotherhood. Many women who wear headscarves do so to legitimate their entry into the modern labor force and appearance in the public sphere. National identity co-exists with the religious. Egyptians are also great nationalists, and many insist that the Egyptian nation is a framework within which Christian Copts are completely legitimate participants.

A recent Pew poll found that 59% of Egyptians favor democracy in almost all situations. And fully 60 percent are very or somewhat worried about the specter of religious extremism in their society. About 61% do not even think there is a struggle between modernizers and religion in Egypt.

Among the 31% who did see such a struggle, 59% favored religious forces and 21% favored the modernizers. Barry Rubin and Michael Totten misread this latter statistic to be true of all Egyptians. They are wrong. The statistic is not about Egyptians in general, but about the third of them who see a conflict between modernizers and religion. 59% of 31% is 18% of the whole Egyptian population who favor fundamentalists over modernizers. The rest either favor the modernizers or think it is a phony conflict. Not thinking that modernism and religiosity conflict is generally a liberal point of view.

It cannot be assumed that the Muslim Brotherhood is the future face of Egypt, and there is no reason to think it has the popularity or levers of power that would allow it to make a coup. The Brothers are more likely to gain further influence (as they already have since 2006) via parliamentary elections. I cannot, of course, know whether there will be new parliamentary elections in Egypt soon, whether the Muslim Brotherhood will be allowed to run, or how well, exactly, they will do. They would likely be far more influential in a democratic Egypt than they have been under Mubarak, but I cannot see what would make them hegemonic. They would want liquor to be banned throughout the country, e.g. which would be very bad for tourism, and a lot of Egyptians depend on tourism. Of course, social groups sometimes do go in directions that irrationally harm their economic interests. But the Cassandras have no proof that Egyptians will take that path.

 

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