Saturday, 29 January 2011

Egyptian futures: Tiananmen or Gaza?

What's the future for Tunisia? For Egypt?  For Arab states in the Middle East?
Last night on the BBC World Service a couple of commentators talked of their "excitement" at the developments in Tunisia and Egypt, and hopes for democratic transformations throughout the Middle Easet.  Neither they nor the interviewer mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood.  Rather like discussing, say, the Chinese revolution without mentioning the Communists.

Charlie Rose had a couple of guest this morning on Bloomberg who gave a rather better analysis: Marc Lynch of George Washington University and Robert Mallet of the International Crisis Group.
The Brotherhood was not so visible in the Egyptian demonstrations, they argued, because they did not want a high profile to give authorities the excuse to crack down harder on the protesters.  They noted also that the protests were not hightly organised.  Those seem fair assessments.  They do not gainsay, however, the high likelihood -- verging on certainty -- that the Brothers are watching and biding their time. Come the elections, if any, they are likely to triumph.  They are the only credible and structured opposition and have cunningly presented themselves as moderate social reformers.
Lynch and Mallet both identified the dilemma of the United States: support for autocratic regimes -- "they may be bastards, but they're our bastards" -- versus support for democracy which could well see installation of Islamist regimes more inimical to US -- and world -- interests.  So far they gave high-ish marks to the US for treading this line quite finely and I think that's right.
So what's the likely outcome? An Arab Tiananmen?  That would be the brutal crackdown by the regime, followed by years of economic growth?  Hardly.  There are manifold ways this situation is different from China in 1989.  Another Gaza?  Where there are elections and a hard-line Islamist party, like Hamas, comes to power?  For my money that's the more likely outcome.
What can the US and the west do about this?  Certainly it can't be public about the concern that that would happen.  It continues to talk simply about the "democratic aspirations of the people" to have their voice heard, and for the governments to listen. But it has to be mindful of the Brotherhood, in its internal calculations.  One hopes they are.  Problem is, there's nothing in the public domain to suggest that anyone in the US administration -- or in the governments of the west -- alive to the true threats of Islamism, via the Brotherhood.  There's even talk -- including out of the US at senior levels -- that the Brotherhood is a "moderate organisation".
If only.
The Muslim Brotherhood is committed -- in its own words -- to destruction of the West, even if they may eschew terrorism to that end ("moderates"!).
And meantime, for Israel, the prospect is for another Hamas-like regime in power. Grim news for for the region's only democracy.