Do we sympathize with the tens of thousands of Egyptians marching to topple the regime of Hosni Mubarak? It would be churlish not to. Poverty, insecurity, lack of basic services (the tap water in Cairo is reportedly unsafe to drink), endemic corruption, and political repression have characterized life there for as long as anyone can remember. The military regime lacks legitimacy, having governed since 1967 under a state of emergency.
The Mubarak government can be brutal to its opponents. A 2009 State Department report documented hundreds of human rights abuses as well as dozens of "disappearances," unjust imprisonments, and torture.
Conditions within the prisons and detention centers remained poor. According to observers, prison cells were overcrowded, with a lack of medical care, proper hygiene, food, clean water, and proper ventilation. Tuberculosis was widespread; abuse was common, especially of juveniles in adult facilities; and guards brutalized prisoners.
Elections have been a joke. The press is controlled. So the grievances of the Egyptian public are legitimate and affecting. Though there are no polls of the protesters, it's a safe bet that most are not demonstrating in order to bring about an even worse tyranny than they currently endure. And yet, the world -- particularly the Arab world -- being what it is, that is precisely the most likely outcome.
Egypt, the most populous and influential country in the Arab Middle East, has long been the prize that Islamists have lusted after. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who is Osama bin Laden's first deputy, is the former head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a terror group committed to imposing a sharia state in Egypt. He has reportedly made toppling Mubarak a top al-Qaida priority.
Though it has been outlawed and repressed, the Muslim Brotherhood (part of the same movement as Egyptian Islamic Jihad) remains the only opposition in Egypt that is organized, disciplined, and ready to seize power. Commentators sniff that Mubarak has "used" the fear of an Islamist takeover to justify his continuation in power for 30 years. But the fact that Mubarak exploited the Islamic threat for his own purposes doesn't make it a mirage.
In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood has moved very deftly in the current crisis, throwing its support to Mohamed ElBaradei -- the sort of international diplomat (he's also a Nobel laureate) that Western liberals call a "moderate." In fact, he's a transparent apologist for Islamists worldwide. As the Jerusalem Post's Caroline Glick detailed, when ElBaradei headed the International Atomic Energy Agency, he repeatedly ignored evidence that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon, resisted sanctions on Tehran, and called Israel "the number one nuclear threat to the Middle East."
Last week, ElBaradei told Der Spiegel: "We should stop demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood. ... (T)hey have not committed any acts of violence in five decades. They too want change. If we want democracy and freedom, we have to include them instead of marginalizing them."
There is the echo of every naive revolutionary in the history of the world. Such people can topple autocrats -- as the Mensheviks did in Russia, the secular reformers in Iran, the anti-Batista forces in Cuba, and liberal elements in Nicaragua -- but they can seldom seize and hold power. Most are rewarded with a bullet to the back of the head within hours of the new regime's ascendancy.
Optimists about the possibility of a sunny result from the current unrest in Egypt point to the Philippines and South Korea. But the U.S. enjoyed prestige and outsized influence in those countries, and could accordingly shape events in a democratic direction. As Barry Rubin of Pajamas Media reminds us, public opinion in Egypt is a bit more problematic. Asked whether they preferred "Islamists" or "modernizers," 59 percent chose the former, only 27 percent the latter. Some 82 percent think adulterers should be stoned to death, 77 percent favor the amputation of thieves' hands, and 84 percent approve of the death penalty for apostates.
In 2005, tens of thousands of Lebanese thronged the streets in the so-called "Cedar Revolution" to demand freedom, democracy, and the ouster of the Syrians. Today, Hezbollah is in effective control of the country. In 2006, the Palestinians, voting against corruption and for change, elected Hamas.
The men and women on the streets of Egypt's cities have been inspired by the example of Tunisia and the hope of a better life. But the Muslim Brotherhood has been preparing for this day for decades. As Michael Ledeen's grandmother warned: "Things are never so bad that they can't get worse."
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