For the Egyptian people, the Brothers are not an enigma — they have been around since 1928. Unlike the revolutionary mullahs of Iran, who wrote books that almost no one outside the clergy read, the Brotherhood has spread its word to the Egyptian public for decades.
It’s also important that Egyptian Muslims are Sunnis. Unlike Iran’s Shiites, whose history revolves around charismatic men, Egyptians have no Ayatollah Khomeini. The Brotherhood is an organization of laymen. It has always had a tense relationship with Al Azhar, the great Sunni seminary of Cairo.
Although Hosni Mubarak has done his best to suck the life out of Egyptian society, the shadows of once great parties, like the Wafds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and nearly forgotten forces like the Liberal Constitutionalist Party will try to resurrect themselves in fairly short order. Ayman Nour and his liberal Ghad Party are already established.
Once President Mubarak is gone, and if his minions don’t try to maintain the military dictatorship, a quick transition to democracy is likely to produce a plethora of parties, with a few in position to form a coalition.
The Brotherhood will undoubtedly be one of the big players, but it will have to compete for votes. And, as the Brotherhood’s aborted platform clearly reveals, the organization is going to have to do better than chanting, “Islam has all the answers,” the easy retort of men who know they don’t have to compete for power.
What we are likely to see in Egypt is not a repeat of Iran, where fundamentalists took undisputed power, but a repeat of Iraq, where Sunni religious parties did well initially but started to fade, divide and evolve as the powerful Sunni preference for laymen of no particular religious distinction comes to the foreground. Sunni Islam has no clerical hierarchy of the holy — it’s tailor-made for nasty arguments among men who dispute one another’s authority to know the righteous path. If the Brotherhood can be corralled by a democratic system, the global effect may not be insignificant.
We have a chance in Egypt to be lucky. Democratization there, like democratization of Iran, could thwart the ideologies and fear that move poor countries to spend fortunes on nuclear weapons. The United States is not without influence. We can push hard for a quick transition to democratic rule. The Egyptian Army, historically no friend of democracy or civil liberties, is now dependent on American money and advanced weaponry. If it continues to stand behind Mr. Mubarak, if Egyptians start to die in large numbers, Washington shouldn’t hesitate to play hardball.
Elections should not be at the end of some long, undefined democratic transition, which Mr. Mubarak or his minions would surely use to abort democracy. Egypt needs elections sooner, not later. More convincingly than any president before him, Barack Obama can say, “We are not scared of Muslims voting.” He can put an end to the West’s deleterious habit of treating the Middle East’s potentates respectfully and the Muslim citizenry like children.