On Point: Islamist Mensheviks Versus Islamist Bolsheviks -- Egypt's Next Crisis?


by Austin Bay
February 1, 2011

Egypt's complex rebellion is rushing toward revolution. Forthe near-term, how the Egyptian military promotes, thwarts, and/or negotiatesthe inevitable redistribution of power among individuals and factions withinthe country is the most critical issue. Even if the current president, HosniMubarak, survives, his personal authority will be drastically diminished.

In a replay of Tunisia's popular revolt, Egypt's generalshave seen their troops openly sympathize with the demonstrators' grievances anddemands, and removing Mubarak is the demonstrators' angriest demand.

Promising to protect rather than fire on peacefuldemonstrators signals that the military wants to act as a stabilizing nationalinstitution. If the generals and admirals unite behind Mubarak (he insists onserving through this fall's elections) or opt to support a new leader (whethercivilian or military, with military far preferable), the difficult and painfulprocess of addressing popular demands for reform may avoid anarchy andwholesale bloodshed. Should disputes among senior officers crack the consensusand the military factionalize, however, civil unrest could become ruinous civilwar, which would only benefit Militant Islamist organizations.

How the military manages (or mangles) the near-term directlyaffects the answer to the long-term question that revolt in a predominantlyMuslim state eventually confronts: What type of Muslim religious party orfaction will emerge as a major force in Egyptian politics? Will it be Islamistor Militant Islamist?

There is a significant difference. Turkey's moderateIslamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has had demonstrated success in ademocratic secular politics and at least claims it remains committed toTurkey's secular structure. There are reasons to be wary of the AKP, but itexists -- and it is a sworn enemy of al-Qaida. In Tunisia, moderate Islamistsalso pledge to support democracy.

Egypt has its moderates, but it is also the home turf ofsome of the world's most vicious militant Islamists. Al-Qaida's second incommand, Aymen al Zawahiri, is Egyptian, as was author Said Qutb, theintellectual godfather of al-Qaida. The Egyptian government executed Qutb in1966.

A book published last year by the Naval Institute Presstitled "Militant Islamist Ideology" (note the capital M) analyzes thedifferences between Islamists and Militant Islamists. Its author, YousefAboul-Enein (who happens to be a U.S. Navy officer), says the use of"violent means" to achieve and impose "ideological goals"cleanly splits the Militant Islamist from Islamists.

Islamists advocate implementing Shariah (Islamic) law"as the basis of all statutory issues." Americans may find Islamistpolicies arbitrary and restrictive, but Islamists do not use violence.Moreover, the Islamists represent cultural and moral values respected inpredominantly Muslim societies. Islamists can accommodate themselves todemocracy -- a Militant Islamist is a totalitarian and despises democracy.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution began as a popular rebellionagainst the authoritarian Shah. Opposition to the Shah united liberalmodernizers, workers, nationalists and Muslim militants led by the AyatollahRuhollah Khomeini. The Khomeinists eventually imposed their own dictatorshipbecause they were willing to kill other Iranians. One dictatorial cliquereplaced another.

In a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor,Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran's first president after the revolution (and livingin exile since 1981, when Khomeini toppled him), wrote that if Tunisians are toprotect their revolution from the fate that befell Iran's, "despite theirmany differences from secular to Islamist, political organizations shoulddevelop a common commitment to democratic values and the rights ofindividuals."

Most Iranian political organizations "did not committhemselves to democracy. Lacking the unity of a democratic front, one by onethey became targets of power-seeking clergy in the form of the Islamic RepublicParty, and were pushed aside." It's an old story. Revolutionary Russia'smoderate Mensheviks were tossed aside by the violent Bolsheviks.

Bani-Sadr's article echoed Aboul-Enein's contention thatfaithful Muslims play a central role in defeating Militant Islamism:"Militant Islamist ideology can be opposed among the Muslim masses only byIslamic counter-argumentation. We cannot contain Militant Islamist ideology butonly work to marginalize, de-popularize, and erode its influence and massappeal by identifying it as different from Islam or even from Islamistpolitical groups."

At some point, the Militant Islamists will resort to terrorand assassination in their bid to secure unrivaled power. It will take aresilient alliance of Egyptian secularists, moderate Islamists and the militaryto defeat them. Encouraging this alliance should be America's foremostdiplomatic goal. 

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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