Two Egyptian leaders have been struck down in 30 years: One by an Islamist assassin’s bullets, the other by the demands of hundreds of thousands of protesters in a peaceful uprising. The first event, the death of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, marked a spectacle of the most militant brand of political Islam. The revolution the world witnessed on Friday, the toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, may herald the dawn of something else.
There is a fear in the West, one rarely echoed in Egypt, that the nation’s revolution could go the way of Iran’s, when radical Islamists ultimately commandeered a movement that began with a far broader base. However, the two are very different countries. In Egypt, the uprising offers the possibility of an accommodation with political Islam rare in the Arab world — that without the repression that accompanied Mubarak’s rule, Islam could present itself in a more moderate guise.
Egypt’s was a revolution of diversity, a proliferation of voices — of youth, women and workers as well as the religious — all of which will struggle for influence. In Egypt, political Islam will most likely face a new kind of challenge: Proving its relevance and popularity in a country undergoing seismic change.
“Choosing a regime will become the right of the people,” Ali Abdel-Fattah, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, said on Saturday. “The nature of the regime will be decided by elections and I think Egyptians agree on the demands and how to realize them.”
Of countries in the region, only Turkey has managed to incorporate currents of political Islam into a system that has so far proven viable, but its bold experiment remains unfinished. The rest of the region is strewn with disasters, from the ascent of the most militant strands in Iraq after the US invasion to the rise of populist and combative movements in the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon that emerged under Israeli occupation.
In Egypt, repression of its Islamic activists helped give rise to the most extremist forces in the Muslim world — leadership of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and an insurgency against its own government in the 1990s.
However, at its core, the revolt that finally toppled Mubarak had a very different set of demands. Its organizers rallied to broad calls for freedom, social justice and a vague sense of nationalism that coalesced around a demand that distant and often incompetent rulers had to treat them with respect. They were voiced by youth, women, workers and adherents of revived currents of liberalism, the left and Arab nationalism, spread by social networks made possible by new technology.
The Brotherhood, a mainstream group that stands as the most venerable of the Arab world’s Islamic movements, is of course also a contender to lead a new Egypt. It has long been the most organized and credible -opposition to Mubarak, but it must also prepare to enter the fray of an emerging democratic system, testing its staying power in a system ruled by elections and the law.
“This is not yesterday’s Egypt,” said Amal Borham, a protester in the square.
“It is their right to participate as much as it is mine, as much as it is anyone else’s in this country,” added Borham, who considers herself secular. “They are part of this society and they have been made to stay in the shadows for a very long time.”