Optimists and pessimists can both feel vindicated by looking at the Egyptian revolution after one year. The good news is that, so far at least, the Islamist triumph in the Egyptian elections has not led to radicalism and, if anything, shows the profound pragmatism of many Egyptian Islamist leaders. Policymakers feared that a Muslim Brotherhood victory in the polls might lead to the emergence of a radical, anti-Western government in Cairo. Not only did the Brotherhood gain almost half the seats in Egypt’s parliament, the more radical salafis gained almost a quarter. So politics in Egypt does not involve a fight between secularists and Islamists as anticipated, but rather between different strands within political Islam.
Fortunately, the Brotherhood has sought to reassure international audiences and has not embraced an anti-Western agenda. Nightmare scenarios such as the cancellation of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty or the forcible imposition of Islamic law have not come to pass nor do they seem in the making. Even the more radical Egyptian salafis have moderated in response to their success at the polls, though their ultimate trajectory remains a question mark. So the hope that Islamists in power would prove responsible and cautious is, so far, justified.
The bad news, however, is that a year after Mubarak’s fall the fate of democracy in Egypt is still an open question. Contrary to the narrative in the West, Mubarak did not fall in response to a popular revolution. Rather, Mubarak fell in response to a coup, which in turn was provoked by a popular revolution. This may seem a distinction without a difference, but it means that the military, not a set of opposition leaders, took the reins from Mubarak. Whether the military will surrender control to an elected government is unclear. Egyptians fear that the military will allow chaos and bloodshed in order to justify its continued domination. Be it radical Islamists killing Christians or soccer partisans killing each other, Egyptians see the military as allowing such bloodshed to create an appetite for a strong hand at Egypt’s helm. And even if the military does allow power to pass to the people, it will still seek to play a disproportionate, and undemocratic, role in Egypt’s economy and foreign relations.
It is tempting for the United States to encourage a significant military role in the Egyptian government as a force for moderation, but such short-term expediency risks a long-term disaster and the obstruction or corruption of the democratic process. Washington should recognize that having helped push Mubarak out, America’s best hope in Egypt is to continue to encourage the Islamists toward moderation rather than seeking refuge in a reactionary military regime.