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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. For the near-term, how the Egyptian military promotes, thwarts, and/or negotiates the inevitable redistribution of power among individuals and factions within the country is the most critical issue. Even if the current president, Hosni Mubarak, survives, his personal authority will be drastically diminished.

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

Promising to protect rather than fire on peaceful demonstrators signals that the military wants to act as a stabilizing national institution. If the generals and admirals unite behind Mubarak (he insists on serving through this fall's elections) or opt to support a new leader (whether civilian or military, with military far preferable), the difficult and painful process of addressing popular demands for reform may avoid anarchy and wholesale bloodshed. Should disputes among senior officers crack the consensus and the military factionalize, however, civil unrest could become ruinous civil war, which would only benefit Militant Islamist organizations.

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

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

Egypt has its moderates, but it is also the home turf of some of the world's most vicious militant Islamists. Al-Qaida's second in command, Aymen al Zawahiri, is Egyptian, as was author Said Qutb, the intellectual godfather of al-Qaida. The Egyptian government executed Qutb in 1966.

A book published last year by the Naval Institute Press titled "Militant Islamist Ideology" (note the capital M) analyzes the differences between Islamists and Militant Islamists. Its author, Yousef Aboul-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 Islamist policies arbitrary and restrictive, but Islamists do not use violence. Moreover, the Islamists represent cultural and moral values respected in predominantly Muslim societies. Islamists can accommodate themselves to democracy -- a Militant Islamist is a totalitarian and despises democracy.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution began as a popular rebellion against the authoritarian Shah. Opposition to the Shah united liberal modernizers, workers, nationalists and Muslim militants led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Khomeinists eventually imposed their own dictatorship because they were willing to kill other Iranians. One dictatorial clique replaced another.

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

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

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

At some point, the Militant Islamists will resort to terror and assassination in their bid to secure unrivaled power. It will take a resilient alliance of Egyptian secularists, moderate Islamists and the military to defeat them. Encouraging this alliance should be America's foremost diplomatic goal. 

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