Egypt celebrates as outlawed party claims power

The Muslim Brotherhood was banned and repressed for decades under Egypt’s military dictatorship. Now, it has taken power. A tide of change is sweeping across the Middle East.

Egyptians know that their revolution is far from over – that there are tough battles yet to be fought. But most were celebrating yesterday. The results of the country’s first free presidential elections have at last been announced.

The losing candidate was Ahmed Shafik, a former general who has close ties to the old authoritarian regime. His defeat is a blow to the Egyptian military, who had hoped to use Shafik as a puppet to defend their vast wealth and maintain their grip on power.

The winner was Mohammed Morsi, a member of the controversial Muslim Brotherhood. The old military-backed regime, represented by Shafik, was secular, with few obvious religious leanings. In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood is an ‘Islamist’ group. It wants to build a new Egyptian society and state, based on the principles and teachings of Islam.

Morsi is still a long way from putting that dream into effect. The generals are still holding tight to power – despite the election result – and will not easily let go.

But the simple fact of a Muslim Brotherhood president shows how much Egypt has changed since the dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year. ‘These groups,’ said Mubarak, ‘will never take over this country.’ He was wrong.

The Brotherhood’s victory will shift the balance of power in a struggle that is taking place across the Middle East. From Morocco in the far west, all the way to Turkey and Jordan, the last decade has seen secular dictatorships increasingly challenged by the rising power of political Islam.

This wave of change is upsetting a long-established international order. For years, dictators were tolerated or even supported by the US and other Western countries. Why? Because they suppressed popular, Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamist movements that were thought to be associated with extremism and violence.

Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was one of the biggest winners from this policy, taking billions in military aid from the US government. But even he could not repress the Islamists forever. The old order, it seems, is finally breaking down.

Strict principles

In international circles, the Muslim Brotherhood victory has caused a certain amount of alarm. Islamists in power do not, so far, have a good record of respecting basic rights and freedoms. They have also tended to be hostile to US and Western interests.

But not everyone is against Islamist rule, so long as it remains democratic. In conservative countries like Egypt, only Islamists can muster enough support to really break the power of the old ruling elites – the generals and dictators. Better, perhaps, to be ruled by a party with strict principles than by men with no principles at all.

You Decide

  1. Why do you think Islamists have often been hostile to – or suspicious of – the West?
  2. Do you think having strong religious principles makes a ruling party better or worse?

Activities

  1. What would a society look like if it was organised around strict religious principles? In groups, try to list as many ways as possible in which such a society might be different from the society you live in today.
  2. Do some further research on the Muslim Brotherhood, then create an intelligence report, explaining what the group believes and how its victory could affect the broader politics of the Middle East.

Some People Say...

“Change in the Middle East brings more danger than opportunity.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Middle Eastern politics seems to get an awful lot of attention. Why is that?
Three reasons. First, many countries there, including Egypt, are in a very volatile condition. Their futures are uncertain, and big consequences can flow from minor events.
Go on...
Second, international relations in the region are particularly tense. Countries like Egypt sit within a complicated and delicate framework of treaties and alliances. Disrupting the framework could lead to a regional war.
And finally?
Last but not least, the Middle East is home to the planet’s largest remaining reserves of crude oil. A war there would drive energy prices sharply upward, causing huge difficulties for economies all over the world.

Word Watch

Vast wealth
The Egyptian Army has been the real power in the country for more than fifty years. According to some estimates, the military controls around 30% of Egypt’s economy, worth billions of pounds.
Holding tight to power
Just before the results of the presidential election were announced, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces changed the Egyptian constitution to deprive the incoming president of most of his official authority. The Supreme Court had already dissolved the country’s elected parliament.
Extremism and violence
The Muslim Brotherhood was itself guilty of acts of murder and terrorism during the early 20th Century, and played a big part in developing the ideology of Islamist extremism during the 1950s and 60s, inspiring groups like Hamas and al Qaeda. Since the 1980s, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence and claims to have embraced democracy.
Islamists in power
There are two opposite examples of Islamist governments: Iran and Turkey. In Iran, democratic rights are not respected. The country has also supported terrorist attacks against the West and is thought to be trying to develop a nuclear bomb. In Turkey however, Islamist rule has encouraged religious conservatism but has not damaged the country’s democracy.