The tyrant must go, but beware what comes next

John R. Bradley – Daily Mail January 30, 2011

Eighteen months ago, I predicted there would soon be an uprising in Egypt.

My book, The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution, caused quite a stir in the country and was promptly banned by the oppressive regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

With demonstrations on the streets of every major city, the army mobilised and the death toll already well over 100, my prediction has become terrifyingly real.

Within a week from now, I expect Mubarak will be gone from power and this already deeply misunderstood country, the most populous nation in the Arab world, will be plunged further into political and economic chaos

And standing on the sidelines waiting patiently to exploit just such a scenario will be the extremist Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Founded in 1928 and committed to the idea of creating an Ottoman Empire-style Islamic caliphate, the Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned in Egypt.

But by standing as Independents, its members managed to win 25 per cent of the seats in the most recent elections for Egypt’s ineffective parliament.

As the biggest Islamist organisation in the world, the Brotherhood has garnered considerable support in Egypt by running hospitals, schools and numerous charities for the poor.

Although supposedly committed to bringing about peaceful change, it played a violent part in the lead-up to the 1952 coup which ousted the British and eventually brought to power President Gamal Abdel Nasser, effectively the founding father of modern Egypt.

The group may well carve itself a role amid the turbulence now because, after 30 years of brutal dictatorship, Egypt has long been crying out for revolution.

All that was needed was a spark to light the fire, and the populist uprising in Tunisia this month gave it one.

Decades of frustration, borne out of police brutality, systematic corruption and desperate poverty, exploded into revolutionary anger overnight. And the bad news for Mubarak is that this anger shows no sign of abating.

Having spent a decade in the country, talking with the sort of Egyptians you never see in a glossy holiday brochure, I know well the hardships that large swathes of the population have struggled with for years.

I’m talking about ordinary families, where a husband could be holding down two jobs and still bring in less than £40 a month; where a wife could struggle to put meat on the table more than once a week and where the children could pass all their exams with flying colours and still be illiterate.

In Mubarak’s Egypt, you see, it’s not hard work that brings exam success. It’s a packet of Marlboro Lights and a few dollars slipped under the table by a parent too weary – or indeed, too frightened – to buck the corrupt system.

Among such ordinary Egyptians, fear and pent-up anger have become almost default states.

Mubarak’s police force has become known for its mass round-ups, random arrests and savage beatings, regardless of guilt or innocence.

Each gross miscarriage of justice is another recruit to the opposition cause – and after 30 years of this brutal regime that’s an awful lot of recruits.

In one village, a boy of 13 was arrested on suspicion of stealing a packet of tea. The boy was beaten, raped and left for dead on waste ground for his parents to find him. That entire village now wants revenge. Similar stories are repeated all over the country.

These atrocities – and the countless other human rights violations carried out in the name of the Mubarak regime – have largely gone unchallenged by the U.S., Egypt’s most important and generous ally in the West.

Valuing stability in the Middle East above all else, and blinded by gratitude for Egypt’s signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979, Washington has been pumping money into the Egyptian economy ever since – most recently to the tune of almost $2billion a year.

But now this strategy, which can be seen as propping up a corrupt dictatorship, could be about to backfire terribly, with America’s name permanently tarnished in Egypt by its association with Mubarak.

Frighteningly, this is exactly what happened in Iran in 1979, when the revolution toppled the hugely unpopular Shah who had been supported by America for years.

That revolution is now routinely described as Islamic, but it wasn’t initially. The populist uprising against Iran’s monarch saw intellectuals, academics, feminists, the middle classes all demonstrating on the streets of Tehran.

It was only after the Shah had fled the country and Iran was plunged into uncertainty and chaos that Ayatollah Khomeini arrived from Paris, whipping up not just Islamic fundamentalist fervour but, by exploiting its close association with the Shah, widespread anti-American feeling too.

Over 30 years later, Iran is still an Islamic republic and still fervently anti-American.

Monitoring events in Tunisia and Egypt, and sensing the opportunity swinging their way, Iranian clerics are already claiming Khomeini’s call for Iran’s Islamic revolution to be exported to other countries could be about to come true.

That’s what makes the demonstrations in Egypt’s cities both worrying and dangerous. So far, anti-American feeling has not been evident – the Stars and Stripes has not been burned, the Embassy has not been stormed.

But the longer Mubarak remains, the longer his opponents have to think about what is allowing him to cling on to power.

America could easily find itself condemned by association.

That’s why, finally waking up to the danger, we saw President Obama and David Cameron yesterday calling for an ‘orderly transition’ of power. But is this a classic case of too little too late?

Worryingly, it could be. In Tunisia, which despite all the undeniable faults of President Ben Ali’s corrupt regime was still the most liberal, tolerant and secular society the Islamic world has ever known, we’re already seeing the problem that faces all populist uprisings: what happens next?

It is not insignificant that we saw secular women in Tunis this weekend demonstrating against any return to a more Islamist way of life.

Egypt could easily go the same way, only more quickly and more dramatically.

After 30 years of Mubarak, the opposition is divided and disorganised.

The exception, inevitably, is the Muslim Brotherhood, which for all its peaceful- sounding intentions is staunchly opposed to the State of Israel, a shift in position which, should it come to power, will send shock waves throughout this already highly volatile region.

This is an even worse scenario for the anxiously-watching West, given the bloody history of Islamist terrorism in Egypt.

In 1997, 58 tourists were massacred by terrorists at a temple in Luxor. In 2005, bombings at the popular resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh killed 88 people, and the lives of a further 23 were lost following an attack in the seaside city of Dahab a year later.

It may yet prove highly significant that, among the thousands of prisoners who escaped Egypt’s Wadi Natrun prison on Saturday night, many were said to be dangerous Islamist terrorists.

Mubarak must go; that much is clear.

But when he does there is a real risk that Egypt, one of the birthplaces of civilisation and a home to an Arab society with a long tradition of pluralism and tolerance, could well find itself ruled by a harsh, Iranian-style Islamic theocracy.

Indeed, it may be too late to stop it.

• Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution, by John R Bradley, is published in paperback by Palgrave Macmillan

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