When I studied at AlAzhar University in Cairo in 2003/2004, a heavy sense of stagnation seemed to suffocate Egyptian life. Forty percent of the population could not read or write, hundreds of thousands of students were without jobs, half of the population was under the age of twenty. And President Mubarak had already been in power for over twenty years. Even back then, he only managed to maintain control with help from the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Both play an important role in today’s developments as well: The military command has announced that it considers the demands of the protesters legitimate. And the people demand the end of Mubarak’s rule. While you are reading these lines, the president might already be boarding a plane into exile with his family (Remember that his son was supposed to be installed as the next president?). The military will not open fire on the protesters. Mubarak’s era is over.
The Muslim Brotherhood has often propped up Mubarak’s reign behind the scenes. It helped to channel popular discontent with the war in Iraq and enabled the government to control the situation. If the Muslim Brotherhood had stirred anger, escalation and protests would have happened earlier than they did. Now, as the protests continue, more and more protesters in Tahrir Square are exposing themselves as openly religious. The Muslim Brotherhood is organizing its ranks; soon it will join the fight for power in the post-Mubarak era.
Moderate does not equal secular
The organization, founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, was banned and then legalized again. Its members are often seen as moderate – and thus as unthreatening. But “moderate” has different connotations in the Islamic world than it does in the West. Is does not imply secular politics. The Muslim Brotherhood is an organization whose founding myth and ethos are thoroughly Islamic. Political Islam – the influence and dominance of religion over politics – is an integral part of its philosophy.
Today, the Brotherhood finds itself confronted with a religious vacuum. The reputation of AlAzhar University – the oldest institution of learning in the Sunni world – is damaged by three decades of support for President Mubarak. Every mosque was controlled by the state; free expression of religion only flourished in private prayer spaces, hidden in garages or behind the gates of courtyards.
Cairo is a colorful city. Driving down the highway that connects the airport to the city center, one can see churches alongside the minarets of mosques. The American University – a favorite of the children of Egypt’s elite – is located in the vicinity of Tahrir Square. Nearby, the Sisters of Mercy of St. Borromeo run a German school. The mélange of Western-looking students and the progressive urban bourgeoisie is not representative of Egypt as a whole. But the majority of Egyptians has no problem with multicultural influences or the Coptic Christian minority. Tourists from all over the world visit in great numbers. The military, too, is a secular force.
Cairo means “Victorious”
The issue that has been stirring anger for over thirty years is peace with Israel, which many Egyptians reject. The tectonics of the region will chance, unless a new government under the leadership of Mohammed Elbaradei is elected and begins its work soon. ElBaradei can maintain stability in the region and incorporate the different opposition groups into the political system.
“Survive Egypt – the rest is easy.” That slogan was prominently displayed on stickers handed to me when I first arrived in Egypt as a student. I have seen cyclists who rode against traffic on an inner-city highway while balancing huge trays of bread on their head. I have seen dead monkeys floating in the Nile, slaughtered cows that were halved and processed by butchers in the middle of the road. Now those people in Cairo – a city whose name translates as “Victorious” – are fighting for their future. It is in the interest of everyone that the future leads down a path towards freedom, democracy and peace, without the influence of radical Islam.