All things are clear in retrospect. More than a year after the beginning of the “Arab Spring” (or “Arab Awakening,” if you like), we are still trying figure out what has happened and will happen throughout the Middle East. Tunisia seems to have found a balance between its Islamist and secular parties for the moment. Libya’s freedom from decades of tyranny at the hands of the “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution” has proven far more complex than anyone predicted. Bahrain crushed the weak-willed revolts of mostly Shi‘a dissidents. Syria’s praetorian bunker regime has spent the past months brutally punishing citizens for their efforts at revolt. Yemen is a model for failed states everywhere. In Egypt, however, it appears to be business as usual.
Over the weekend, Omar Suleiman, the former director of military intelligence of Egypt under Hosni Mubarak and it’s shortest-serving Vice President (at just under two weeks), was put forward by the current junta as a candidate for the upcoming presidential elections. The only other viable candidates are from the popular Muslim Brotherhood party. Both the Brotherhood and the so-called “Revolutionary parties”—mostly a disorganized rabble of indecisive and ambivalent youth and left-wing liberals—publicly spoke out against this move on the part of the military, though the latter has no candidate to speak of, given the refusal of Mohamed el-Baradei to participate in what will assuredly now be completely farcical elections. El-Baradei, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency, took some criticism when he protested the elections by refusing to take part, but it would appear that he was quite prescient in his fears.
The Muslim Brotherhood has recently been the only viable political force in Egypt, after the disbanding of the National Democratic Party, a party which was more nationalist than it was interested in democracy. The MB has, until this year, operated illegally since being banned in 1954, at great risk and expense to its members, who were regularly harassed and jailed for their involvement. Officially, its parliamentarians have run as “independent” members, though no one really has ever harbored any illusion that they were anything other than members of the MB.
Other parties and movements failed to coalesce into anything which could reasonably contend with the MB politically. Years of being politically marginalized and extensive planning and organization gave the MB a great deal of popular legitimacy to their cause as both a party and as a quasi-religious organization. Youth movements, such as the April 6th movement, which famously used Facebook to organize revolts in Mahallah al-Kubra in 2008, crumbled when persecuted and arrested. One founder and early de facto spokeswoman for the group, Israa Abdel Fattah, tearily confessed on national television that she would not have participated in organizing had she foreseen the consequences. This came at the end of a two-week stint in jail. She renounced further political activism at that point. This does not represent the kind of political mettle which is needed to face down the MB, its members having been persecuted for decades.
The MB did and does represent a threat to liberal, progressive Egyptians and also to those more conservative and attached to the “old guard” of the Mubarak era. This latter group comprises several generations from wealthy and influential families who still control most of the land and industry in Egypt. They have deep ties to the military and to the still-extant bureaucracy which can only be described as monstrous and impenetrable. While a great deal changed at the very top end of the old regime, the bureaucracy proved its immutability even through a military coup disguised as a revolution. As a result, much of the corruption that existed during the Mubarak era still exists today, with no real impetus for change.
The problem with the Muslim Brotherhood now is the opposite as during the Mubarak era. Then they were afforded legitimacy by the ban placed upon their operation as a party and the perception of persecution at the hands of the government, particularly the Ministry of the Interior and the dreaded intelligence forces—known as the mukhabirat. The best way to neuter the party would have been to allow them to exist legitimately and operate as a political party. In this way, they would have been robbed of their legitimacy as religious figures and been swept into the intrigue of daily politics, but without being ever able to play their trump card of being subject to oppression. Instead, they built schools and hospitals, gave money and food to the poor, bolstering their legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of Egyptian citizens. This propelled them to huge successes during last year’s parliamentary elections and the constitutional referendum, during which they campaigned on the platform of Islamic government as just government.
With the return of such an odious figure as Suleiman to the political arena, it will be rigged elections and dirty politics as usual in Egypt. The MB retains their legitimacy in the eyes of those who view the need for removal of corruption and a turn to Islamist government as an expression of Islamic values. This sentiment will be only further bolstered by the support of the military and by old-guard figures such as Mona Makram Ebeid, former parliamentarian and current lecturer at the American University in Cairo who was heard happily stumping for Suleiman this morning on BBC World Service. This appears to be the beginning of a return to normalcy and stability to Egypt, but at what cost? Apparently at the cost of a revolution and unmanipulated elections.