Kenneth Cuno is a professor of history at the University of Illinois who teaches the modern history of the Middle East and whose research focuses on the social history of modern Egypt.
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Massive street protests erupted in Egypt on Jan. 25, with participants calling for an end to the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. The protests followed similar demonstrations earlier in the month in Tunisia, which brought about the ouster of Tunisia's long-time authoritarian president. Kenneth Cuno is a professor of history at the University of Illinois who teaches the modern history of the Middle East and whose research focuses on the social history of modern Egypt. Cuno was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
While many would cheer the downfall of an autocratic regime, there's the fear of what might take its place, and seemingly more so in the Middle East. But is a takeover by political or religious extremists a likely outcome in Egypt?
Some commentators have already raised that specter, invoking the example of Iran in 1978-79. But no one is expecting the Egyptian ulama (clerics) to make a bid for power, as happened in Iran. Rather, concern is focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, a mass lay organization led by professionals such as teachers and lawyers. They are "Islamist" in the sense that they believe that Islam contains a blueprint for a just social and political order that is superior to liberal-capitalist democracy, fascism or communism. But they also proclaim their intent of achieving an Islamic order peacefully, through persuasion. I'm not sure they really qualify as "extremists."
Despite Mubarak's claim that Islamists stirred up the protests that began on Jan. 25, in fact they were organized by non-ideological activists using non-religious slogans. The Brotherhood declined to involve themselves at first, not endorsing the protests until the fourth day. They then joined the coalition demanding Mubarak's departure and the installation of an interim government, but they have said they do not want to lead the coalition, nor an interim government.
So what has raised the specter of Egypt becoming another Iran?
Mubarak has consistently presented his regime as the only thing standing in the way of an Islamist takeover of Egypt. He consistently played that card in resisting demands for economic and political reforms, or to respect human rights. At the same time he weakened the legal opposition to the point that the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to be the only viable opposition organization - at least in western conventional wisdom. Since the protests began some Americans and Israelis have been saying the choice is between Mubarak's dictatorship or a radical Islamic state, but their pessimism seems unwarranted.
What is really behind the protests? And are the seeds there in Egypt for real democracy?
The basic demand of the protesters, in addition to an end to Mubarak and his regime, is a democratic and responsive system, and the rule of law. The Egyptian constitution already provides for that, but for 30 years the Mubarak regime has manipulated the electoral system and suspended normal constitutional rights such as habeas corpus under "emergency laws." In addition to a worsening standard of living and Mubarak's autocratic rule there have been a series of scandals over the years involving abuse of power by members of his National Democratic Party, and increasingly lawless behavior by the police. In June 2010 police in Alexandria beat Khaled Said to death outside a cyber café after he exposed police drug dealing in a web video.
Is there anything in Egypt's recent political history that may have laid the groundwork for these protests?
Let's go back to 2005. After George W. Bush's re-election and before the Iraq war appeared to be a disaster, his administration was pushing an agenda of "democratization" in the Middle East. Mubarak responded with some cosmetic changes to the electoral system, which included allowing multiple candidates to run for president. In the parliamentary elections, opposition candidates, including Muslim Brothers running as independents, won more than 20 percent of the seats. But after the first round there was increased voter intimidation, vote-rigging and ballot box stuffing, duly reported by the judges acting as poll watchers. Mubarak won the presidential election by more than 90 percent, and the leading opposition candidate was tried and convicted on fraud charges.
Judicial supervision was removed in the latest parliamentary elections, in November and December, in which the opposition was reduced to a mere 3 percent of seats. In the meantime, Mubarak announced his intent to stand for re-election in September 2011. This sent a message to opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, that an incremental strategy of limited electoral gains and gradual opening up of the political system would not work. Although people have faced enormous economic difficulties and those are also a cause of anger at the regime, it seems that Egyptians' frustration with the blockage of meaningful political participation is a major factor driving the protest movement.
What's at stake for the U.S. and how is that dictating U.S. actions?
Egypt is an important ally and there is close cooperation between our militaries. Egypt was the first Arab state to normalize relations with Israel. Oil tankers heading west from the Persian Gulf use the Suez Canal. The Obama administration is understandably concerned about instability, but it seems to recognize that Mubarak can no longer hang on to power without using massive force against unarmed protesters. The Obama administration and the Europeans have made it clear that that would be unacceptable.