The Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to win out

By Nathalie Tocci, March 10, 2011
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The revolts sweeping the Middle East have shaken long-held truths about the region. True, Middle Eastern regimes had been remarkably resilient, remoulding their neo-authoritarian practices to the prerogatives of a globalised world. True also, despite its liberal rhetoric, the West sustained these regimes, viewing them as the lesser evil in a region supposedly plagued by religious extremism.

But not only did the stability, let alone the sustainability, of these regimes prove to be a chimera: the nature of these revolts also suggests that a transition towards democracy does not necessarily mean opening the floodgates to Islamic fundamentalism.

Political Islam was certainly not among the headline slogans in Cairo, Tunis and Benghazi. Instead, a largely unorganised but e-savvy youth mobilised spontaneously, calling for a political, social and economic reorganisation of the state. Ideology was nowhere to be seen. Among the protesters' demands was an end to political repression and corruption, and a reduction in economic inequalities, youth unemployment and poverty.

The critic will be quick to point out: 1979 Iran. There too, a multi-faceted, pro-democracy revolution was ultimately appropriated by one segment of the street. This is unlikely to happen in Egypt.

Islamic groups have undergone a process of gentrification

First, having coexisted with an authoritarian regime for decades, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has increasingly been co-opted by it. Not only did the Brotherhood reject Mohammed el Baradei's call for a boycott of the 2010 legislative elections in Egypt. The party was - and in particular its old guard - not in the first lines of protest in Tahrir Square this January.

Second, the Arab revolts stood out for their spontaneity and lack of organisation. Mainstream public moods, demands and desires have not yet been channelled into organised political voices. In such a vacuum, new political forces are bound to emerge, mostly likely from the civil, social and economic spheres. This includes workers, youth and student movements, plus trade unions and other associations. Islamic organisations are part of this picture, but having undergone a slow but steady process of gentrification, they are unlikely to represent mainstream interests in the country.

While the Brotherhood, alongside other old and new political actors, will shape Egypt's future, Egypt is unlikely to "stolen" by them alone. Yet if the Egypt of tomorrow is to be more responsive to popular demands, then Egyptian foreign policy is bound to change. This does not mean that an end to the Egyptian-Israeli cold peace is in sight. It does mean, however, that the unpopular Egyptian policy of maintaining the Gaza blockade may well come to an end.

Nathalie Tocci is deputy director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome

Last updated: 12:47pm, March 10 2011