Mobilizing the Veto in Egypt

The vehemence of the Egyptian people’s response to the recent machinations of the military council caught a lot of people by surprise. Egyptians continue to show that they will march to the barricades when they smell a rat in the actions of their leadership. Beatings, gas and even killings do not seem to intimidate anymore. But with the rolling elections that began on Nov. 28, the actions of the past weeks carry a more poignant political overtone and raise important questions anew.

Perhaps the key question is about the true power and the true intent of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is the largest and best-organized of all the political movements, but does it represent as many Egyptians as it claims? That is anybody’s guess. And while the common wisdom has it that the Brotherhood has a considerable advantage over all other parties, it has become increasingly fragmented into factions and even break-away parties defined by how deeply Islam should be involved in governing a new Egypt.

The Brotherhood lost a lot of credibility during the recent tumult when it held back from supporting the activists in Tahrir Square. Its refusal to join the others is considered by many to have been a revelation of the Brotherhood’s true colors: that it is willing to act in cahoots with the military council for its own selfish ends at the expense of the Egyptian people as a whole. Yet it is extremely difficult to poll the populace. Observers don’t have an accurate handle on the pulse of the people, and they don’t yet know whether voters will stick with their positions or veer off as they enter the polling booth.

Add to this confusion the problem of “revolution fatigue.” The turbulence of recent months has made life extremely difficult for millions of people for whom getting by was difficult even before the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Many people are just fed up. They don’t really want to go back to the corruption of the old ways, but they are desperate for stability, and many feel they can’t trust the ability or the reliability of any of the current leadership options. Nobody knows where it is all heading, and everybody seems to be trying to spin the situation to their own advantage.

It is impossible to know what is going to happen in Egypt. That’s a simple fact. Here are some reasons. Egyptians have been moving steadily toward religious conservatism over the past 40 years. In the 1950s and ’60s you saw few women veiled, and mosque attendance was sporadic. Today, you rarely see a woman on the street unveiled, and on Fridays worshippers typically spill out onto the sidewalks despite the existence of literally thousands of mosques in greater Cairo. Bikinis were common in Alexandria. Today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any Egyptian bikinis anywhere on public beaches (private pool parties are another story). But Western ideas and values have penetrated Egypt increasingly and thoroughly during the same period. Notice the veils on many young women … and extremely tight-fitting tops and pants that show every wrinkle. Egyptian music today is a fusion of Eastern and Western styles, and Egyptian sitcoms could be produced in Hollywood.

Egypt has had no direct experience with democracy, ever. Dictators, kings, foreign colonial administrators, sultans, caliphs and pharaohs all have ruled. Egyptians never have experienced a true parliament or real elections. But, vicariously, Egyptians have been watching America and Europe, and most have envied the West’s democracy and success. And they have watched the fall of the Iron Curtain and the democracy struggles — some successful and others not — after the failure of communism. They know a lot about democracy from afar, but they have not seen it up close.

Egyptians, like most peoples who have lived for generations without a free press or freedom of expression, feel manipulated by government and the media and public pundits. They are so used to being sold a bill of goods that they feel hesitant to believe any authority. At the same time, conspiracy theories abound in Egypt. People will believe one, then not, then believe a new theory. There is a tremendous volatility in the opinions of many Egyptians.

Dozens of new parties have formed over the past few months, most too small to make a big difference unless they are able to form coalitions and work the system. But nobody really knows how to work a democratic system because they have never experienced one. The experience will come with time, but in the meantime, they’ll make mistakes, sometimes even very bad mistakes.

The question is, can the mistakes be corrected? Let’s take the precedence of Iran after 1979. The earliest Iranian government was not Islamist, but mistakes were made, and because they were not corrected, the entire country slid into an Islamist theocracy. Will that happen in Egypt? The true answer is, of course, nobody knows.

But there are some significant differences between Egypt and Iran. Iran is disparaged by Egyptians for many reasons, and not only because it is a stifling, theocratic dictatorship. The bottom line is that Iran is a powerful example for Egyptians of what they don’t want.

Now the good news. Egyptians have tasted freedom, and they want it — and that includes members of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are too many instances to count since January of when Egyptians have not allowed autocratic leaders — whether in local government or the work place or even the university — to get away with obvious corruption that previously had been tolerated because that was simply how things “worked” in Egypt. The people have shut down factories, risen up against university policies, and even closed down the national rail line in order to make themselves heard.

This is a critically important card that the Egyptian people hold. The Iranian people never had it. It is the card of the mobilized veto. You have seen it at work in Egypt since January, and especially in recent weeks. The people mobilize and proclaim a loud and public veto, and that public veto has now become an honored part of Egyptian political culture. It is hard to overestimate how important and respected it is, honored by everybody from garbage collectors to housewives to the military junta trying to hold onto power.

If the Muslim Brotherhood becomes the major power broker after things have settled down, or if an Islamist coalition, or any leadership for that matter, tries to force something on the public that the public will not bear, the people will mobilize. They will return to Tahrir Square and the streets in cities and towns and even villages to proclaim their public veto. The feared paramilitary police failed to stop them, and now the military is failing to stop them. For the foreseeable future, this will be a central fact of Egyptian politics, and it will be a profound moderating influence on whoever ends up on top.

Reuven Firestone lived in Israel and Egypt. He is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. His most recent book is “An Introduction to Islam for Jews.”