Egypt: On the Brink of Revolution?

Egypt: On the Brink of Revolution?

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is John R. Bradley, a British journalist and author. His last book on the Middle East was the critically acclaimed Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis (2005). He joins us to discuss his new book, Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution. He maintains a website at

FP: John R. Bradley, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Bradley: Greetings, Jamie. It’s very nice to be chatting with you again.

FP: What inspired you to write this book?

Bradley: I’ve been semi-permanently based in Egypt for about a decade, apart from a two-and-a-half-year stint in Saudi Arabia from a few months before September 11, 2001. I speak the Egyptian Arabic dialect fluently, and consider Cairo my home. So after I left Saudi Arabia and published my book on that country, Saudi Arabia Exposed, I instinctively made my way back to Egypt.

I suggested to my publisher that I should write a book on contemporary Egyptian politics and society since — amazingly — there’s no similar book out there, and apart from Saudi Arabia it”s the Arab country I”m most familiar with. Egypt moreover is the most populous Arab country, the region”s historic trendsetter, and a crucial US ally, so it”s very important that Westerners understand the inner workings of this country better — especially as it appears to be entering a period of serious instability.

Back in 2005 I had a strong sense, based on what I was seeing and hearing on the ground and on my own close reading of the recent Egyptian past, that the country was approaching a pivotal moment in its history. Rather riskily, I decided to call the book Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution. It turns out, though, that I was right to have trusted my instincts. Inside Egypt is published this month, as the country is being rocked by the most serious disturbances since the 1952 revolution.

FP: Yes, your book is extremely timely. Egypt is presently witnessing an endless series of strikes, demonstrations and riots. What is the cause? And what are the chances of them leading to serious instability?

Bradley: There are many causes: extreme poverty, endemic torture, rampant corruption, political oppression, the complete evisceration of the middle class, the theft of the country”s vast wealth by the fat cats under the guise of privatization and opening up the economy to foreign investment. Then there”s the ideologically bankrupt regime itself that has absolutely no interest in solving any of these problems — indeed, which is the root cause of them all.

There”s no indication that the latest wave of strikes and riots will in and of itself topple the Mubarak regime. There are 1.4 million members of the Egyptian security forces, and their brutality in stifling dissent is legendary. As I write in my book, these thugs even beat, rape, and murder little boys for allegedly stealing packets of tea, apparently just for fun of it, so they can be completely relied upon to beat protestors in the street to a pulp.

My sense is that, rather than through organized opposition, an unpredictable event in the near future may act as a spark that will set the whole country ablaze. An uprising could also be triggered by an announcement that the president”s son, Gamal Mubarak, will himself stand for president, as is widely anticipated. Opposition to Gamal inheriting the reins of power is the one thing that unites all the Egyptian opposition groups: secularists, leftists, Islamists, Christians and Muslims, and the mass of the population not actively involved in politics but fed up with being ruled by this bunch of ignoramuses.

Only one thing is for sure: the next 18 months or so in Egypt are going to be extremely tense, and things here are going to get a lot worse before they have any chance of getting better. There”s a very real risk of the country descending into chaos, and therefore of a military coup — especially if it seems that the Muslim Brotherhood is set to make a power grab.

FP: How popular is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? What are your thoughts on Washington entering some kind of engagement with the Islamist group in the attempt to “moderate” or democratize it?

Bradley: The Muslim Brotherhood is not very popular at all here in Egypt. Debunking the myth of the group”s popularity, which has gained widespread currency in the West, is one of the main aims of my book. The group apparently has about 500,000 members — out of a population of 78 million. There are probably a million or so more Egyptians who are vaguely sympathetic to their goals, or who would support them because they believe any group would be better than the tyrant who rules them at present. In other words, at most they have the support of about 2 percent of the population.

There are obvious reasons why their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam doesn”t resonate among ordinary Egyptians, one of which is that the kind of Islam practiced by the country”s Muslims is an intriguing mishmash of Sunni, Shia, and Sufi traditions.

For instance, there are at least six million men in Egypt — about a third of the adult male Muslim population — who are members of one Sufi order or other; and at least twice that number of men — and countless millions of women and children — participate in the festivals the Sufi orders organize called moulids. That these figures are likely to surprise outsiders is proof of how the coverage of Egypt in the Western media has tended to favor analyzing developments almost exclusively in relation to the Muslim Brotherhood, to the detriment of other more moderate and mainstream Islamic trends.

The Muslim Brotherhood condemns moulids as un-Islamic, and that is one of a number of reasons why they can count such a small number of members in their rank and file. Praying to holy men and women, even celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, is akin to idolatry, according to these Sunni fundamentalists. The tedious fatwa-issuing sheikhs of Al-Azhar agree with them.

Add to this the roughly 10 percent of the population that is Christian, and other large ethnic groups like Bedouin and Nubians for whom Islamism is anathema, along with secular Egyptians and moderate Sunnis and fiercely independent tribal Upper Egyptians, and it isn”t difficult to understand why the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to garner mass support, and never will.

Most Egyptians live in horror at being ruled by a hard-line Sunni Islamist regime.

For all these reasons, and many more, I have nothing but disdain for those foreign policy experts in Washington who promote dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood as a way of cultivating an alternative to the Mubarak regime. Of course, the group is the main political opposition — but how many Egyptians care about mainstream politics? Less than two percent voted in the latest elections. And the Muslim Brotherhood have been cultivated as a political opposition force by Mubarak himself precisely to play up the fear in Washington of an Islamist takeover if he is removed from power. Western policy makers who promote the Muslim Brotherhood are, however inadvertently, doing Mubarak”s dirty work for him, and in the process they are doing a great disservice to the Egyptian people.

Of course, if these Western apologists for the Muslim Brotherhood happened to be secular Egyptian Muslims working, say, as professors of politics or literature at Cairo University, they wouldn”t be nearly so eager to promote this brand of cultural fascism, because they themselves would have to face the consequences.

FP: Inside Egypt paints a grim picture of the country, where torture, poverty, and corruption are endemic. How did things reach this point?

Bradley: Inside Egypt shows that all the problems in the country can be traced back, directly or indirectly, to the 1952 coup that overthrew the British-backed monarchy and brought to power Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Free Officers. Before the coup there was a constitutional monarchy and a functioning and democratic parliament; after the coup Nasser banned all opposition parties. Before the coup there was a vibrant and free media; after the coup Nasser nationalized the newspapers and appointed his lackeys as the editors in chief. Before the coup Cairo was wonderfully cosmopolitan; Nasser then expelled the foreigners and his rank xenophobia then ruled supreme. Then there was the curse of his pan-Arabism, a fallacious dream that evaporated once it encountered reality, and which brought the Egyptian people nothing but defeat and despair.

Colonialism is always bad, and I”m not defending the British colonial period in the book. Far from it. I merely point out that the Free Officers inherited the wealth and corruption of the ousted monarchy, and in doing so got rid of everything that was good and replaced everything that was bad with something even worse. Modern Egypt has a long history of foreign occupation: by the French, the Ottomans, the British. In Inside Egypt, I argue that the country has effectively been occupied since 1952 by the military. The military have created a system of oppression that has only one goal: perpetuating their own rule and increasing their own wealth and privilege. For this to happen, the Egyptian people must be cowed into subservience through systematic torture and other crude forms of intimidation.

FP: So what are the chances that Egypt is the next domino to fall? If Islamists capture power, is the Middle East lost?

Bradley: If Washington does decide to listen to the voices of policy analysts inside the Beltway and turn on Mubarak or his successor only in order to cultivate the Muslim Brotherhood, it will not so much mark a “triumph of Islam” but the final death knell for Egypt’s deep-set democratic and pluralistic traditions, with devastating consequences for the wider region. Egypt is the only buffer left that can keep Islamism from completely dominating the region”s political landscape.

Of course, the Islamists’ perpetual argument that their agenda not only embraces democracy but in fact takes it to a higher level of true popular participation is eyewash. Western democracies in theory guarantee the political participation of all citizens regardless of ideology, opinion, or religion; but the Muslim Brotherhood and their like make political participation of individuals in society subject to the principles of the sharia. In the West, the legislative and judicial branches of government monitor state actions to ensure they conform to democratic rules: The three powers keep each other in check. In an Islamist setup, the actions of the state would be monitored by the Muslim Brotherhood to ensure they conform to the rules of sharia. In other words, the Islamists would monitor only themselves.

The Muslim Brotherhood guarantees freedom of belief only for the followers of the three revealed (Abrahamic) religions, since the Qur’an, due to the Prophet’s particular circumstances, is wholly ignorant of, say, Buddhism, and only takes issue with polytheism (of which Mecca was a center in his time), which it naturally condemns since it seeks to supersede it. And the freedom of association enjoyed by civil organizations in a democracy would, in an Islamist system, be conditional on their adherence to the strictures of the sharia. The Brotherhood opposes the notion of a state based exclusively on Western-style democratic institutions: Islamic government is based on the shura (consultative assembly) system, veneration of the leader, and the investiture of a Supreme Guide. So says the Islamic canon, and it must therefore be.

In short, it is a circular argument, positing that perfect freedom and human rights have already been achieved in the Islamist democracy, obviating the need for any doubt, debate, expression, exploration, and whatever else fuels the development of a culture, except for such minor niggles as the ruler may from time to time bend his august ear to. That is the principle guiding Saudi Arabia, and the results are there for all to see in the arid kingdom’s magnificent achievements over the last seven decades in music, art, literature, philosophy, science, and technology.

When the Muslim Brotherhood laid down its first detailed political platform in October 2007, it showed its true colors. Women and Christians would be barred from becoming president, and a board of Muslim clerics would oversee the government in a move that many observers noted was terrifyingly reminiscent of Iran’s Islamic state. The president cannot be a woman because the post’s religious and military duties “conflict with her nature, social and other humanitarian roles,” the document said. Amazingly, the blueprint reportedly discussed women’s issues under its “Issues and Problems” chapter, alongside other “problems” like unemployment and child labor. While underlining “equality between men and women in terms of their human dignity,” it warned against “burdening women with duties against their nature or role in the family.”

Let’s not forget, either, that the Muslim Brotherhood wants to reinstate the Caliphate. Toppling the Egyptian regime is crucial to achieving that goal. How can Washington possibly work with such a bunch of extremists? And why should the Egyptian people have to suffer the Muslim Brotherhood’s inevitable campaign to kill off cultural expression, from literature to beauty contests, with accusations of blasphemy as their bullets?

FP: So should Washington continue to prop up the Mubarak regime? Can or should the $2 billion aid package the US sends Egypt”s way each year be used to encourage reform and greater democracy? What is your advice for U.S. policy toward Egypt?

Bradley: The key, of course, is the $2 billion the United States gives Egypt annually in aid, which should unequivocally be tied to progress on reform and with a clear threat that the money will be diverted to grassroots projects in Egypt that promote democracy if reform is not only said to be happening but seen to be happening as well. Washington should get something for its money. And what does Washington really have to lose by following such a course? The Mubarak regime is hardly likely to hand over power to the Muslim Brotherhood when its bluff is called, or stoke up popular anger to the extent that it might get out of control. Who among the Egyptians would not be happy that the regime is getting a metaphorical slap in the face, bearing in mind the very physical slaps and worse so many of them have to suffer at the hands of the regime’s thugs everyday? Israel, meanwhile, is so superior militarily to Egypt that an attack by the latter on the former would be nothing short of suicide.

Regionally, Egypt’s influence is also greatly diminished. From Palestine to Iraq, Lebanon to Syria, and crucially Iran, it is Saudi Arabia that is now calling the shots, and there is no more reliable Washington ally in the Arab world than the House of Saud — an ally, moreover, pretty much immune to pressure from Washington when the price of oil is hovering at all-time highs.

Under such pressure, the Egyptian regime would have no choice but to introduce meaningful reforms, however slowly. Inching forward is preferable to no movement at all.

For two hundred years, Egypt has steered a course between the two poles of the East and the West. Ordinary Egyptians are Washington’s natural allies, if they can see real benefit to themselves in the alliance. For Washington to abandon the Egyptian people by letting things fester, with all the risk that entails of bringing the Muslim Brotherhood to power, as though the Egyptian people deserve nothing better and want nothing more, as many Washington-based policy analysts seem increasingly to advocate, would be more than just a betrayal of what has historically been the Arab world’s most vibrant and diverse culture: It would, as I have said above and would like to emphasize again here, also sound the death knell for democracy and pluralism throughout the region.

In short, Washington must think long-term, slowly reassessing its support for Egypt’s dictator while doing its utmost to resolve the Palestinian issue, which he exploits to deflect attention from his own considerable shortcomings. It should recognize the Muslim Brotherhood only for what it is: a genuinely important political movement that nevertheless has very limited support among the Egyptian masses.

FP: John R. Bradley, thank you for joining us.

Bradley: You”re very welcome. Thanks, Jamie.