“The World is Flat” in Egypt

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Hosni Mubarak’s ouster by a popular uprising represents the breakdown of the decades-old approach of repression and dictatorship that has dominated Egyptian politics.

No one party dominated the uprising. Rather, it was supported by a broad cross-section of Egyptian society, as political parties, including secularists and Islamists, joined the revolution. This equality established level ground for all parties, regardless of size or history, to compete in a free election in a new Egyptian political system.

Suddenly, the political world in Egypt became flat. Representatives of older groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood now have the opportunity to sit beside the Google executive Wael Ghonim, and other opposition figures, in the post-Mubarak political arrangement.

Since the uprising ignited on Jan. 25, the Muslim Brotherhood has received more media coverage than in the past decade, especially by the Western press. The reason is simple: The West’s widespread fear that this revolt will follow the same trajectory as Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

Both uprisings began unexpectedly, with support from all segments of society. But then the balance of power in Iran shifted drastically to Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic rule. In the Egyptian case, many are concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood, in similar fashion, might come to dominate the political scene — especially since it is Egypt’s oldest party, established in 1928.

Many factors suggest, however, that the Egyptian revolution has created level ground for a pluralistic system — far different from the single-party structure of the past 30 years. The most important point to consider is that the Egyptian uprising represents not only the failure of the Mubarak regime, but the inability of traditional opposition parties to bring change within the old government structure. The protesters were fighting against Egypt’s entire political system, including the traditional opposition parties.

Not just the Muslim Brotherhood, but the New Wafd, established in 1978, the Tagammo Party, created in 1977, and others proved ineffective when compared with the new Internet-savvy groups. Certainly, new organizations, like the Jan. 25 movement, accomplished more in 18 days than older parties had in decades.

Ghonim, for example, who worked in business marketing until Jan. 25, had more followers in Tahrir Square than the seasoned Muslim Brotherhood politicians, who have spoken out against the Mubarak government for decades.

This uprising was indeed fought against the political status quo. Protestors did not emulate traditional opposition parties, seeking to produce change within the Egyptian political system. They took politics outside the system, to the streets.

The traditional opposition parties had become too comfortable in Mubarak’s system, and were thus considered unable to fulfill the hopes of ordinary citizens. This popular disillusionment helped create these new opposition forces that challenged the entire political system. They have humbled the older political players, at least for now, and demonstrated the weaknesses of traditional opposition — particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.

Recognizing that its role is supporting what others initiated, the Muslim Brotherhood may now need to temper its positions, and collaborate with other parties in shaping Egypt’s new political map.

This liberalization of the Muslim Brotherhood and other traditional opposition parties’ political behavior is likely, since real change has swept through Egypt. A fundamental transformation was evident in the actions of the youthful Egyptians in Tahrir Square, who defied Egypt’s most recent Pharaoh.

This may indicate that no single party is likely to dominate political life in Egypt in the future. Indeed, those who defied dictatorship today should have no problem confronting totalitarianism tomorrow.

A “flat” Egypt today provides an opportunity for the country to become a truly pluralistic society. It can also allow the international community, particularly the United States, to redefine its role of engagement with Egypt — and the Middle East as a whole. The Egyptian youth who started this revolution are inviting the United States to prove its commitment to its democratic values and build genuine partnerships with the people of the Arab world — rather than renovating fragile alliances with autocratic regimes.

The “flat world: in Egypt today might not remain so for long. Now is the time for Washington to renew its commitment to democracy.