Since it began late last month, the turmoil taking place in Egypt has spawned no shortage of expert commentary here in the United States. Some observers have argued that, despite the current ferment in Cairo, strongman Hosni Mubarak will stubbornly cling to power and ride out the storm. Others, however, have come to question the utility of America's historic backing for the Mubarak regime—and counseled unequivocal support for its overthrow. Still others have taken the long view, seeing the Egyptian tumult as a belated vindication of the "Bush doctrine" of democracy promotion.
Precious few, however, have bothered to ask exactly what it is that ordinary Egyptians are after. They should, because—beyond the general dissatisfaction with the Mubarak regime now visible on the Egyptian "street"—the values and beliefs of the protestors are likely to have a profound influence on the nature of the political order that will eventually emerge there.
On that score, it turns out, there's ample reason for pessimism. As Caroline Glick, one of Israel's most astute observers of regional affairs, pointed out this week in the Jerusalem Post:
"According to a Pew opinion survey of Egyptians from June 2010, 59 percent said they back Islamists. Only 27% said they back modernizers. Half of Egyptians support Hamas. Thirty percent support Hezbollah and 20% support al Qaida. Moreover, 95% of them would welcome Islamic influence over their politics…
Eighty two percent of Egyptians support executing adulterers by stoning, 77% support whipping and cutting the hands off thieves. 84% support executing any Muslim who changes his religion."
Egyptian values, in other words, are far from liberal—even if some of the protesters currently out in the streets might be. This, of course, runs counter to the idea that has taken hold in many quarters: that the end of the Mubarak era will inexorably lead to democracy in the heart of the Arab world. But numbers don't lie; Egyptian society as a whole is both religious and deeply conservative.
It is also desperately poor. National unemployment stands at around 10 percent, while a fifth of Egypt's 80 million person population lives on less than $1 a day. And the Mubarak regime, for all its talk of economic prosperity, has consistently failed to create jobs, leading to massive brain drain and emigration. It's no wonder that Egypt's economy ranks among the most "unfree" in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the Heritage Foundation's latest Index of Economic Freedom.
These conditions have left Egypt's youthful populace (with a median age of just 24) disgruntled and disaffected. They have also created fertile soil for the ideology propounded by the country's powerful, and radical, Islamist opposition: the Muslim Brotherhood.
The group, though formally banned by the Egyptian state, has been a fixture in Egyptian society since its founding in 1928. For much of that time, however, it has been forced to operate on the margins of the national political scene, repressed by the secular state. But over the past two decades, as Egyptian society has stagnated under Mubarak, its calls for a reordering of the country along religious lines have found new resonance.
This is not, however, because the Brotherhood as a whole has gone soft, as some seem to believe. Indeed, the group's ideology is still best encapsulated by the draft political platform it released publicly in 2007, when it was contemplating a formal political presence in the run-up to national parliamentary elections. That draconian document, with its calls for a reassessment of the country's diplomatic relations with Israel, a "reevaluation" of the Camp David Accords and all other international conventions, and the imposition of sharia (Islamic law) on all tourists, bears more than a passing resemblance to the constitution of Iran, the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism.
Now, as support for Mubarak's secular nationalist status quo evaporates, the Brotherhood is seeking its moment in the sun. In a bid for support and political legitimacy, the organization has temporarily toned down its inflammatory religious rhetoric and made common cause with Mohammed ElBaradei, the former UN official-turned-presidential candidate who has emerged as the country's most visible pro-democracy leader.
This bid for relevance is based upon a savvy understanding that, current grassroots developments notwithstanding, Egyptian society as a whole is predisposed to its message. If this is in fact the case, Egypt's democratic stirrings could end up yielding profoundly illiberal results.