By Swapan Dasgupta
For the past week, the eyes of the world have been riveted on the turbulence that has gripped Egypt. The scenes of tens of thousands of young, largely male, unarmed demonstrators taunting the baton-wielding police and making a complete mockery of the nationwide curfew has been enthralling. Minus the overtly religious dimension, the upsurge is eerily reminiscent of the events in Iran between 1978 and 1979 that toppled the Pahlavi dynasty and rendered his awesome security apparatus ineffective against organised mass fury. In just three days, a copycat variant of the Jasmine Revolution that sent Tunisia's Ben Ali into exile in Jeddah has sent out the unmistakable message that President Hosni Mubarak is now history.
The timing of Mubarak's formal departure from the seat of power in Cairo may not happen instantly: autocratic rulers accustomed to ruling uninhibitedly don't always give up as easily as Ben Ali. Like the Shah of Iran who appointed the liberal Opposition leader Shapoor Bakhtiyar in a desperate last-minute bid to thwart the inevitable, Mubarak could make a token gesture of accommodation to meet what he has admitted are the "legitimate grievances" of the people.
Tragically for him, it's already too late. Even in Washington, the mood is already veering towards regime change. A much-weakened US is aware it has few cards to play in Egypt. The only thing it can realistically hope for is for Mubarak to go fast, for the anger to subside fast and for a liberal democrat to step into the void and ensure that Egypt doesn't become another radical bastion in West Asia, a Sunni complement to an increasingly maverick Iran.
The real sub-text of the international concern over Egypt is the fear that it will join the forces of radical Islam and destabilise the precarious balance in West Asia.
The fears aren't entirely misplaced. The televised images of determined youngsters in jeans would suggest that the Egyptian outburst is a case of Facebook on the barricades, the 21st century equivalent of the student protests of 1968 in western Europe. Yet, the absence of visible symbols of religiosity in the protests—so unlike Iran where Ayatollah Khomeini personified the opposition to the Shah—shouldn't blind people to two disconcerting facts.
First, that since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, the opposition to Mubarak's autocracy has been led by Islamists, both moderate and extremists. With its extensive penetration in civil society, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) has been the traditional and best organised opposition. It has apparently given up violence for the past two decades and the group has consciously chosen to play a supportive, rather than leadership, role in the recent mobilisation. But there is also the more militant Islamist resistance led by Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, who recruited the likes of Mohammed Atta as suicide bombers.
It is naïve for the West to imagine that moderate opposition leaders such as the Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei can assume a credible role in any alternative dispensation without the support of the Islamist opposition. In Der Spiegel last week, ElBaradei defended the Ikhwan spiritedly: "We should demonising the Muslim Brotherhood…They have not committed any acts of violence in five decades. They too want change. If we want democracy and freedom, we have to include them instead of marginalising them."
Unfortunately ElBaradei's message of inclusiveness isn't likely to be reciprocated. Last Thursday's New York Times quoted conservative Muslim cleric Abu Omer as lamenting that "ElBaradei and the others, they have no connection with religion." Clearly, the idea of a secular Egypt is yet to be accepted by the so-called "Arab street".
Equally ominous is the fact that one of the main criticisms of Mubarak is his alleged "betrayal" of the Palestinian cause and his understanding with Israel. Mubarak was aware that the rapprochement with Israel that followed the Sadat-Begin agreement in Camp David was never popular in Egypt. He tried to deflect this uneasiness with a curious two-track approach: peace with Israel coupled with the benign indulgence of virulent anti-Semitism within the country.
This clever ploy hasn't worked. The young protestors, many of whom are linked to the apparently moderate Kifaya movement, are virulently anti-Israel. They want a reversal of the foreign policy of Sadat and Mubarak, a development that could bring Egypt closer to Syria and Iran and threaten the fragile peace of West Asia. This is more so because the Egyptian military has been generously equipped by the United States. The prospect of these weapons being directed at Israel is scary.
Ultimately, the future of Egypt rests in the hands of Egyptians. Egypt is a country that hasn't tasted liberal democracy. It's exasperation with Mubarak is understandable and the determination to oust a regime based on repression and crony capitalism is understandable. But change brings its own imponderables and the future of Egypt is a greater cause of concern than the future of, say, Tunisia and Myanmar.
There is nothing inevitable about the shape of post-Mubarak Egypt. There are many possibilities and the prophets of doom may well be proved wrong. However, the experience of Iran is a warning that the ouster of a hated regime through a popular uprising doesn't always result in the creation of something more wholesome. History is not always the story of mankind's unrelenting march to progress: one step forward often leads to two steps backward.