Understanding Revolutionary 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.

The following is Brookings Doha Center expert Shadi Hamid’s contribution to 

Understanding Revolutionary Egypt

 in which Foreign Policy magazine asked five top Egypt experts to discuss how the international community should adjust to face Cairo’s rapidly shifting reality.

That the Egyptian uprising happened is not particularly surprising. Nearly everyone was at least vaguely aware that it would happen — if not now, then later. Unless you happen to believe that Arabs are uniquely tolerant of dictatorship, there was little reason to think the Arab world would continue along its course of unbridled autocracy forever.

That said, the shift was more sudden than any of us thought. I was in Egypt covering the Nov. 28 parliamentary elections – quite possibly the most rigged in the country’s history. In Medinat Nasr and Shubra, I talked to the Muslim Brotherhood “whips” (the representatives who count the votes). They ran me through all the violations, one by one. They didn’t seem angry as much as resigned. 

Today, though, the Brotherhood finds itself in a markedly different situation. They are the country’s largest, best organized opposition force at a time when anti-regime protesters are searching for leadership, and not finding it. But this leadership void has also placed  Egypt’s Islamists in the unenviable position of being a potentially decisive force just as the world becomes increasingly nervous at the prospect of their rise.

The Brotherhood — the slow, bumbling giant it is — is unlikely to fully awaken just yet. The group has always believed that it had history on its side. Whenever I would ask Brotherhood leader Esam al-Erian why they didn’t seem to have a clear strategy for change, he would just sit back and say, “we are patient.” Now, it knows for sure: One day, Egypt will become democratic. And one day it will be in government, although most likely as junior partner in a liberal-leftist coalition.

The United States, then, should be reassessing its outdated, ineffective posture toward the Brotherhood. Despite establishing an interagency working group on political Islam and having a point person in the State Department’s Policy Planning office, the Obama Administration, somewhat remarkably, seems clueless about the Brotherhood. When asked about the group, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offered up information that was at least two decades old, suggesting that the Brotherhood hadn’t renounced violence or committed itself to the democratic process — both steps that it took decades prior.

Similarly, on January 30, Secretary Clinton said: “We obviously want to see people who are truly committed to democracy, not imposing any ideology on Egyptians.” This is an odd thing to say considering that for the past several decades, the U.S. has supported and funded an Egyptian regime that was truly uncommitted to democracy.

The “Islamist dilemma” is less of a dilemma than we think. We may, as Steven Brooke says, be getting ahead of ourselves. After all, there’s no real reason to think the Muslim Brotherhood will take the reigns of Egyptian foreign policy anytime soon. As I lay out in this recent Journal of Democracy article, contrary to their image as power-obsessed, Islamist groups across the region, in fact, deliberately lose elections. They do so for a simple reason: They have little interest in governing, at least at this juncture.

But, eventually, they may. This means that we should this opportunity in Egypt to advance a bold, forward-looking – but admittedly risky – effort to finally resolve our “Islamist dilemma.” Once we do that, we can start to fashion a strong pro-democracy vision in the region free of the internal contradictions that have, for too long, paralyzed U.S. policy.