The political revolution in Egypt and its spread to other parts of the Islamic sphere have riveted the world and its media. Where is all of this headed? Nobody really knows. Not the commentators, not the intelligence community, not in the West, not in the East, not the Egyptians, and not the media.
This is no small issue, for Egypt has often set the political tone for the whole of the Middle East. Today Baghdad is in chaos. Amman and the king of Jordan, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Bahrain are all swaying in the wind. Beirut has already fallen to Hezbollah extremists. Gaza has fallen to Hamas. We are living on the fault line of an earthquake.
The Obama administration and the media talk about Egypt as if it is on the verge of democracy, but former British Prime Minister Tony Blair put his finger on the fallacy: "You don't just have a government and a movement for democracy. You also have others, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, who would take this in a different direction." His concern is that democracy in Egypt may well be an interim phase en route to a new dictatorship predicated on extremist Islam. Democracy is not achieved by opening voting booths. A responsible democracy requires laws and their enforcement to ensure that the voting is incorruptible and the results are representative. There has to be an independent judiciary, the rule of law, an open, plural, and independent press, and a culture of human rights. For all the euphoria of a spontaneous uprising, it cannot just be assumed that Egypt now has these elements or a political culture that can sustain a liberal democratic regime. Only a few revolutions develop as well as the one that began in Boston in 1775; others (Paris 1789, Moscow 1917, Teheran 1979) were, shall we say, a disappointment.
Nobody knows the true strength of the Muslim Brotherhood among the young or in Egyptian society as a whole. Nobody knows what the composition of the next Egyptian parliament might be, once it is elected in free, rather than fraudulent, elections. What we do know is that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only organized force within the opposition and as such has the best chance to exploit the post-revolutionary confusion. In the aftermath of a revolution, the people who seize power need not be the most popular, only the most organized, and in Egypt that is the Muslim Brotherhood. It believes in what? It believes in an Islamic democracy based on the principles of sharia, or Islamic law, and the investiture of a supreme guide—something eerily similar to Iran's Islamic state. Islam has a unique appeal in Egypt and indeed in the broader Arab world where secular dictators ruled for decades except in the mosques, which they were unable to close. So the mosques became the center of political activism and Islam the doctrine of opposition.
The Brotherhood opposes a secular state as well as Western civilization, but supports taqiyya, which means lying is allowed if it helps to ultimately defeat the infidels. As for the Brotherhood mellowing, a notion that is the love child of our mass media, this mostly reflects the organization's recruitment of media-savvy spokesmen, who can espouse the virtues of a pro-democracy platform as a smokescreen for the group's real views and intentions.
Polls in Egypt reveal that the people want democracy—but that they also want an Islamic state with sharia and all of its restraints on minorities, religion, and women. As Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said this month, "The Muslim Brotherhood is not, as some suggest, simply an Egyptian version of the March of Dimes." Opinion polls of Egyptians in past years indicate that 60 percent or more support Islamists and favor the re-establishment of a single Islamic state, or caliphate. In a Pew poll last spring, fully three quarters of Egyptians said they favored strict sharia punishments, and of those who saw a struggle between fundamentalists and groups that want to modernize the country, only 27 percent favored modernizers. Half expressed favorable views of Hamas, 30 percent Hezbollah, and 20 percent al-Qaeda. If these convictions or inclinations govern Egypt's future politics, ousted President Hosni Mubarak's military authoritarianism might well be replaced by Islamic authoritarianism.