Democracy or theocratic autocracy? To paraphrase Shakespeare, that's the question and it's the one everyone watching what's going on in Egypt is asking.
Yes, there's a democracy movement in Egypt operating with courage and a commitment to freedom, even if many of the protesters are anti-democratic elements with little enthusiasm for freedom and democracy as we think of it. Michael Totten's piece on the latest post from Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey gives us an inside look at the courage and commitment of some of these people...but it also unintentionally points out how Egypt seems to be traveling the same path that Iran did in 1978-1979.
There is the same optimism among the protesters, the same concentration on ousting an unpopular leader without clear ideas on what comes next, the same lack of leadership - and the same sort of ruthless, well-organized, well directed Islamist elements hovering in the background.
Thirty years ago, the Iranian people poured into the streets demanding that their Shah be ousted. Like the Egyptian protesters today, they also did not have a viable alternative,but were focused strictly on getting rid of an unpopular ruler. And the absence of an organized secular democratic opposition made for a facile takeover by an Islamist movement.
When you talk to people who were in Iran during the Revolution and later went into exile, you find that few of them thought they were rebelling to put a repressive theocracy in place in 1979. Khomeini was a cleric deeply respected as a symbol for his anti-Shah stance, but he was not any kind of designated leader of the entire resistance to the Shah except to his own followers.
But those followers were dedicated, well organized and ruthless, (just like the Muslim Brotherhood) and when it came time to push Mehdi Bazargan and the secular moderates out of the way and take power, they were easily able to do so.
Islam was the hidden, powerful weapon they had on their side, as does the Brotherhood. It tends to condition people to mindless obedience and subservience and its impact, even on people who might not seem particularly devout is not to be underestimated. Again, it's instructive to talk to people who were there, particularly non-Muslims. They'll tell you about the change that occurred in people they had known all their lives almost overnight.
Democracy is more than just one free election. It is a mindset that is committed to individual liberty, dignity and justice for all, and where those traditions don't exist, democracy does not take root. To show you how easily undefined cravings for 'freedom' can be manipulated along more traditional lines, we have Sandmonkey's own evidence of how the Mubarak regime was crafty enough to use common attitudes in Egyptian society to successfully to gain support for itself..the widespread Muslim weakness for feasting on the most bizarre conspiracies, and the equally widespread hatred of Jews and Israel:
"A veiled girl with a blurred face went on Mehwer TV claiming to have received funding by Americans to go to the US and took courses on how to bring down the Egyptian government through protests which were taught by Jews. She claimed that AlJazeera is lying, and that the only people in Tahrir square now were Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. State TV started issuing statements on how the people arrested Israelis all over Cairo engaged in creating mayhem and causing chaos. For those of you who are counting this is an American-Israeli-Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood-Iranian-Hamas conspiracy. Imagine that. And MANY PEOPLE BOUGHT IT."
Khomeini used similar tactics during the Iranian revolution to demonize those who opposed him and motivate the majority of the Iranian public behind him, accusing the secular regime of being in league with foreign conspiracies and Jews and invoking the banner of Islam, Shia martyrdom and the Twelfth Imam. And enough people swallowed it that the Islamic Republic, the villayat e fiqh became a reality.
In Egypt, the impact may be even more profound. One in four Egyptians is illiterate, including almost 70% of the women. And support for Islamist attitudes is surprisingly prevalent.
Will the military provide a counterbalance to the Muslim Brotherhood? Those counting on that may be in for a rude awakening.
At the time of the Iranian Revolution, the Iranian military was also thought of as rational actors who were pro-American, US trained and would keep things from getting out of hand.The same nonsense about finding a general who could front a military regime as a transition to democracy was being chewed over as an alternative by the Carter Administration as it is by the Obama Administration today. But what happened instead is that the military high command made a devil's bargain with the Islamists to step aside in order to keep their prerogatives.
The same sort of bargain seems to be in the making now with General Suleiman and the army engaged in active negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood, apparently with the Obama White House's blessing and active support .
In Iran, similar negotiations with the Iranian military enabled Khomeini to take power. Afterwards, many Iranian military officers were murdered, some fled into exile, and others accommodated themselves to the new regime. And in the end the Khomeini regime had very little trouble recreating Iran's military in its own image.
If all that wasn't enough, a democratic regime is unlikely to take root for another, important reason. Egypt has almost no oil. It has a population of 80 million that it cannot support, half of its food is now imported, the government admits to 12% inflation and per capita income has been declining in real terms for quite some time.
No matter who is in charge, the basic problems of unemployment, high food prices, inflation, corruption and squalor are not going to change overly much. Any regime would be hard pressed to survive in that climate, let alone a new democracy among people unaccustomed to it by history and culture.
Invoking Islam and repression that will make Mubarak seem benign may be the only way a new regime will have keep things in line. That, and a scapegoat to blame their misfortunes on.. and Israel, America and the Jews are already in place for the role thanks to the Qu'ran and generations of government funded anti-Semitic propaganda.
Nothing would make me happier than for the nascent Egyptian democracy movement to prove me profoundly wrong. But I also can't remain blind to the fact that the odds are very much against anything like that happening, and the West had better be preparing contingency plans to deal with the emergence of an Islamist regime in Egypt. And that appears to include dealing with the possibility of a second Islamist nuclear power.