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The Battle for Egypt

February 4, 2011

Petra Kuppinger is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology/Anthropology at Monmouth College. Since coming to Monmouth in 2000, Kuppinger has published eight professional articles. Most of her work stems from dissertation research in Cairo, Egypt, where she spent years doing fieldwork. In 2009 she presented a related paper about female leadership in Muslim communities at Oxford University. She is now on sabbatical in Germany where she is conducting research on German Islam, which she hopes to turn into a book.

Professor Kuppinger was interviewed by the Courier via email on February 3.

Courier: Were you surprised by the anti-Mubarak demonstrations, or could you see it coming?

Kuppinger: Before the uprising happened in Tunisia earlier in January few, including myself, would have foreseen the current events in Cairo. When the protesters in Tunisia were successful and ousted their dictator in a matter of days, it was clear that people in other Arab countries and here in particular, the vast ranks of the younger generation were watching these events very carefully. They took and compared notes. At that point it became increasingly clear that Tunisia could become a model.

Courier: What do you think of the response by the Obama administration?

Kuppinger: The Obama administration (and here I would also include the major European leaders, since I am in Europe at present) were too slow and hesitant to take clear sides with the peaceful demonstrators in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Of course, the situation is tricky as U.S. and European administrations had been backing Mubarak and his regime for three decades.

They had been pleased to have a staunch ally in him who took their side in various Middle Eastern and global conflicts, and in the “War on Terrorism.” That Mubarak did this often at the expense of his people and certainly at the expense of democracy did not so much concern Western governments. Thus the situation was difficult for Obama, Sarkozy, Merkel and others as they had to find the appropriate moment to drop their former ally and switch sides. They soon realized they had to switch sides otherwise years of lecturing the Arab world about democracy would sound even more hypocritical than it had always sounded to the Arab masses.

In addition, Western leaders were/are struggling with irrational fears of all things Islamic which is one reason why they supported Mubarak, Ben Ali and Co. for so long, as these dictators promised to keep the “Islamist” threat in check. How much of this was a useful hype remains to be explored. As Western leaders debated when and how to drop Mubarak, their most urgent concern was/is: what role with Islamic forces and here in particular does the Muslim Brotherhood play in the future of Egypt? This fear, I think, led them to hold on to Mubarak and disregard the people of Egypt for much too long.

Courier: What kind of government is likely to evolve from this movement? Do you see any legitimate leaders emerging from the demonstrations?

Kuppinger: The people in the streets of Egypt and in particular, the core of courageous demonstrators who hold their positions on Cairo’s central Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) are a broad cross-section of the population. It is a grass root movement in the truest sense of the word. They fight for Egypt and they fight for a better future. How exactly this will unfold is still unclear. All these people know is that they have been treated like immature children for decades and they will no longer put up with this political system. They have seen their political leadership and economic elites amass huge fortunes and keep an utterly corrupt system in place for decades.

Mohammed Al-Baradei or Ayman Nour (local liberal opposition leader) could take positions of interim leadership until a reasonable political system has been established and the constitution changed accordingly. Details will have to be negotiated along the way. I think one of the amazing features of this protest is that it is a project in the making. No political group has set up a scheme or master plan for these events. It is the people, and here very much the electronically linked younger generation who are driving this movement. There are no ideological slogans or banners.

Courier: What are the chances that the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood could form a government that would be acceptable to the people?

Kuppinger: The role of the Muslim Brotherhood is interesting and at the same time secondary in these protests. The Brotherhood was as surprised as anybody else by the recent events. That’s why it took them so long to issue statements and get onboard. The Brotherhood has in the meantime joined the protest, not as a leading force, but as participants. If one is familiar with the Egyptian political scenery, it is interesting to note that demonstrators do not use Islamic symbols or slogans to claim ownership of the events for Islamic groups (note that all demonstrators wear westerns style clothes, they wave Egyptian national flags, and nobody carries Islamic banners like the old Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the solution”).

In the Western hype about Islamists the Muslim Brotherhood, who denounced violence a long time ago has been demonized for too long. While militant Islamist groups exist, they are increasingly marginal. The Brotherhood is certainly not one of them. Over the past two decades, in particular, the Brotherhood has turned into a political force not unlike various European Christian Democratic parties. The Brotherhood is also thoroughly pro-capitalists (as it includes numerous wealthy business people) which in part explains its initial hesitance to support the protest as they also fear the anger of Egypt’s disenfranchised masses.

The Brotherhood could be a likely partner in a larger political coalition of parties. They are the only larger organized opposition group (even though they were/are illegal). If the Brotherhood plays a role similar to the AKP, the current ruling party in Turkey of Prime Minister Erdoğan, they could play a rather positive role in the struggle to fight corruption and make Egypt into a more democratic country.

Courier: What are the chances that a new government might produce Iran style Islamic rulers?

Kuppinger: Egypt is not Iran and 2011 is not 1979. When Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran in 1979 he triggered hopes for similar regime changes in many Muslim countries. Islamist political movements mushroomed in the 1980s. As the movements (see for example in Turkey, but also the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) watched the situation unfold, they realized fairly quickly that the Iranian model did not produce the type of society they had hoped for, or even wished to live in.

One after the other these movements corrected their agendas and designed new ways and models. They ushered in a period of “Post-Islamism” in particular in the Middle East and among European Muslims. The term “Post-Islamism” denotes new/revised movements with drastically reworked agendas. These groups, parties and movement search to develop ways to produce a democratic system that includes Islamic groups and agendas. Again, Turkey is the best example – and indeed is carefully watched in the Arab world for that matter. Egyptians today can see the example of Iran and Turkey and there can be little doubt that Turkey is the more attractive and successful one for the masses in the street.

Courier: What is your reaction to the pro-Mubarak forces that attacked demonstrators? The Western press has described them as “goon squads” hired and paid by Mubarak. Do you agree?

Kuppinger: There can be no doubt that the pro-Mubarak demonstrators are predominantly paid thugs and plain clothed police men. They are brought to Tahrir Square to push the demonstrators off the square. It is not surprising that they came in on Wednesday after Mubarak announced what he and his political buddies thought was a great compromise that he would run again for the elections in September.

This announcement added insult to injury for the demonstrators and once more testifies to just how far removed from the masses the Egyptian leadership is. Mubarak and his buddies seemed to have seriously thought this announcement would send the millions home happily, and their own predicament would be over. This, of course, did not happen. They took out their time-honored tool box of violent repression to deal with their opponents. So they brought in their thugs. Since then the regime has shown its ugly and repressive face once more in full.

Meanwhile, numerous journalists (Arab and Western alike) have been beaten and their cameras taken away. Numerous international TV crews who all have offices in the building close to the Egyptian TV had to leave that building as the thugs were attacking, in particular the office of Al-Arabiya, one of the well-respected Arab Gulf networks. The German public TV crew, for example, reported that they had to move to a nearby hotel (not a bad deal, a five star high rise hotel with an excellent view onto the square). The very latest report (Thursday early afternoon, Cairo time), however said that bookings in these local hotels would not be renewed. This is one more sign that the government is involved here. Who else could tell an international hotel chain (in this case the Hilton Hotels) how to handle their bookings?

Personal Note

I am in total awe at the courage and dedication of the Egyptian people. They have my utmost respect. I wish them success and hope they establish the kind of democratic system they wish for and deserve.

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One Response to The Battle for Egypt

  1. Hannah Schell

    February 5, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Thank you, Courier staff, for having the wisdom to consult with Professor Kuppinger and for bringing this issue to the attention of students (if it wasn’t already on their radar). Thank you, Petra, for your informed perspective.