In post-revolutionary Egypt, where hope and confusion collide in the daily struggle to build a new nation, religion has emerged as a powerful political force, following an uprising that was based on secular ideals. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group once banned by the state, is at the forefront, transformed into a tacit partner with the military government that many fear will thwart fundamental changes.
It is also clear that the young, educated secular activists who initially propelled the nonideological revolution are no longer the driving political force — at least not at the moment.
As the best organized and most extensive opposition movement in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was expected to have an edge in the contest for influence. But what surprises many is its link to a military that vilified it.
“There is evidence the Brotherhood struck some kind of a deal with the military early on,” said Elijah Zarwan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “It makes sense if you are the military — you want stability and people off the street. The Brotherhood is one address where you can go to get 100,000 people off the street.”
“We are all worried,” said Amr Koura, 55, a television producer, reflecting the opinions of the secular minority. “The young people have no control of the revolution anymore. It was evident in the last few weeks when you saw a lot of bearded people taking charge. The youth are gone.”
In the early stages of the revolution, the Brotherhood was reluctant to join the call for demonstrations. It jumped in only after it was clear that the protest movement had gained traction. Throughout, the Brotherhood kept a low profile, part of a survival instinct honed during decades of repression by the state.
The question at the time was whether the Brotherhood would move to take charge with its superior organizational structure.
It now appears that it has.As I said, I am shocked. Only last month the NYT's own Nicholas Kristof waxed lyrical about the courage of the Facebook youth of Egypt and said we should be ashamed to even think that they would not be taking Egypt in a new, liberal, democratic direction.
But the more secular forces say that what they need is time.
“I worry about going too fast towards elections, that the parties are still weak,” said Nabil Ahmed Helmy, former dean of the Zagazig law school and a member of the National Council for Human Rights.
And I, an anonymous blogger who does not have the prestige or experience of Nick Kristof and who has never even visited Egypt, had the audacity to respond:
Kristof is making a major mistake. He is confusing bravery for political maturity.How dare I disagree with such an outstanding pundit and accurately predict nearly everything in this article written by his employer a month later? How could I have the chutzpah to mention that the New York Times is paying someone to spout wishful-thinking nonsense while I, and many others, could see what was to happen from thousands of miles away?
No one doubts the protesters' bravery. No one doubts their integrity, or their desire for change, or even their desire for democracy.
But there are serious doubts at their ability to translate the raw desire for freedom into a functional, liberal, democratic government.
It is hard work to create the institutions necessary. More importantly, it takes time - and time is not on the side of the protesters.
It is now fashionable to pooh-pooh the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood in Kristof's liberal circles, but no one can doubt that the Islamists are better organized and much more politically mature than the Facebookers of Tahrir Square. It takes time to set up an organization, to define a clear agenda, to build a fundraising mechanism, to attract volunteers, to build a means to communicate with all the people - including in rural areas, and to do all the myriad details from physical buildings to a phone system to a mailing list.
True freedom cannot flourish until Egyptians have been exposed to a wide range of ideas on a level playing field. The existing Islamist groups are running circles around the "Egyptian youth" we hear so much about. Kristof is so caught up in the emotions of the moment that he cannot think outside Tahrir Square, to the 99% of the country that is not as emotionally invested in who their leaders would be. To them, the nice people with beards who build a free Islamic school for their kids are the only game in town.
Enthusiasm does not ensure effective state building and true freedoms. Kristof, instead of spouting straw-man arguments, should be advocating ways for his jeans-wearing heroes to channel their sparks of enthusiasm and bravery into the hard, thankless and often boring work necessary to build a new Egypt from scratch.
(I didn't see a partnership with the army, I admit...that is actually stunning and far more worrisome than what I had written.)