Egypt, 'Ummah Duniyah', Roars: Hear Me Muslim Arabs, We Are All Qahirene!
by Qanta Ahmed, M.D.
February 1, 2011
This article was originally published by the Huffington Post.
In the years that I lived in Riyadh, my devoted driver was an Egyptian from Cairo. Like me, he was a guest worker in the Kingdom. A Coptic Christian, Zachariah was the first to tell me Egypt is known affectionately in Arabic as Ummah Duniyah -- Mother of the World -- a testament to Egypt's extraordinarily rich and ancient history. Zachariah's gallant chivalry and quiet reticence and his articulate, softly enunciated Arabic were an oasis from the harsh realities of a single British woman in late nineties Riyadh.
In many ways, Zachariah's humble grace and kindness captured the famed gentility of Egypt's working classes, a softness which often irks Egypt's contemptuous Arab neighbors. Today the neighbors have forgotten their contempt, and supplanted by awe, they watch tumultuous scenes unfold in Cairo, quivering in their foolish Dior and Dunhill.
The Qahirene (as Cairo dwellers are known in Arabic) and their fellow citizens have ensnared the world's attention. Protesters bubble with superheated frustration threatening to sputter over the crucible's edge and spark unrest throughout the Arab Muslim world. The scenes so enthralling us are an autocrats' worst nightmare manifest. See them scurry to seek consolation with the surprisingly feckless Western diplomats abruptly surprised. No war games prepared them for the arrival of this untamed monster. The powder keg of public outrage is finally lit, and, sweeping across a long suffering, disabused Muslim Arab world, hundreds of millions of Muslims are completely captivated by images from a quarter of their fellow Arab humanity.
Egyptian protesters and commentators alike underline this is not a Muslim revolt, this is an Egyptian revolt -- pleasant semantics which will bear little relevance short months from now. The colossal Muslim majority of Egypt's population ensures that the actions of Egyptians will reverberate through the rest of the wider Muslim world in unimaginable impact.
The climate inside Egypt is volatile. Vandalism, lawlessness and looting have already begun, community vigilantes and a military, as yet loyal to the proletariat, struggling to maintain a cagey security. The great Egyptian Museum of Cairo has already been raided, resulting in the decapitation of two ancient mummies, symbolic as Egypt disarticulates Mubarak from his Promethean grip on power. Decapitating dictators from power has profound, game-changing outcomes. Like all executions, bloodbaths, literal and figurative, will surely follow.
Mubarak's power has been bolstered by American support desperate for allies in a precarious region. Mubarak has exploited these needs leveraging his priceless capital of peace with Israel -- the legacy of far greater men than he. Egypt's cooperation with Israel on the Rafa border, containment of armaments entering Gaza, and more recently collaboration with the US on the war on terror have been richly rewarded by a West with no alternatives.
Unfortunately these crucial gains (which have kept us at the brink of a fractious and occasionally fragmented peace since Sadat and Begin) have come at exorbitantly high sacrificial prices at the altar of democratization. Yet, to be balanced, we cannot fairly single out the once ruthless and now abruptly hapless Mubarak. His themes of absolute power and personal wealth extracted at the expense of his disempowered populace is a sadly thematic one when considering the truly Pharaohnic leaders of the Arab Muslim world. This is a region where leaders are defined by their obsessional pursuit of despotic power born of an extraordinary sense of entitlement to uncontested, permanent power. It is this edifice, much more than mere Mubarak's, that Egypt now crumbles. Tunisia's Mohsen Bouterfif was the fuse, Egypt is the tinderbox, the Arab Muslim world bone-dry stacks of dynamite. We all wait to see if it detonates.
What transpires in Egypt could translate in other populations of disenfranchised, unemployed and desolate, enraged Muslims elsewhere. Meanwhile, the other 800lb gorilla in the room, upon which so much American interests focus, the Saudis, seek empty assurances. Rousing himself from a Moroccan recovery, the Aging Monarch reassures Mubarak, a badly bleeding Cesar. Saudi elite publicly assure themselves of their immunity from such grotesque and unsavory anarchy sheltered, 'Alhumdullilah', by the relief that they do not have to trouble themselves with needling irritations like faux-democracy. Privately, they anxiously hope they may continue to rely on the eternal complacency of their well-fed, lethargic and heavily subsidized citizens rendered stuporous on the petroleum vapors emanating from the proximity (to but not possession of) obscene wealth.
But the arrival of democracy can be dangerous when violently birthed into a vacuum. Such 'Just-add-Al-Jazeera' democracies can empower vengeful minorities exactly like the Muslim Brotherhood. Instant democracy contains dangers for both Egyptians and citizens of established democracies such as ours here in the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel all of whom nervously, impotently survey the scene. Each of us has an enormous amount to lose if populist, powerful and highly mechanized machinery of the Muslim Brotherhood rides the crest of this unexpected tide.
Elegant appeals for restraint from demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood have already started appearing in the mainstream US press, laying the ground for its palatable rebranding. Gently ushered in within the frightening guise of politically correct and appetizing pluralism -- 'we can coexist with secularity' fundamentalist Islam espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood is already welcomed as if it is 'the choice of the people'. Articulate, erudite Egyptians in well cut suits assure us that Islamist democracy, or fundamentalist Islam could not happen in their country, but hey, that's what we thought at the birth of Jinnah's Pakistan and look where that got us. The thoroughly constitutional Blasphemy Laws, among other rare delicacies.
The Muslim Brotherhood's infrastructure, their broad appeal to Muslim masses (masses which remain doubly illiterate in both letter and liturgy) their borrowed legitimacy derived of an artificial Islam disguising the wolf of extremism in lamb's clothing all combine to ensure they are poised to secure a significantly larger and highly legitimized platform for installing authoritarian fundamentalism through a truly neonatal democracy. The Egyptian revolts are an Islamist movement's a la carte dream come true.
Well spoken academics garnering vapid undiscriminating airtime assure us that the Muslim Brotherhood have been unfairly demonized in an exaggerated fashion as an intimidating alternative once serving Mubarak's dominance. Friends, these are hollow assurances. Ask the truly informed, the deeply knowledgeable and the sincere investigators, men and women whose views are too frightening for a sedated American public more at home with reality TV than real news. While the Muslim Brotherhood may not be poised to lead Egyptian immediately in post Mubarak Egypt, the vacuum left in the wake of a thirty-year dictatorship will usher in their entry into legitimate circles of real power in the most critical region on the planet.
So who are the Muslim Brotherhood? How big are they? Where are they located? The Muslim Brotherhood has become a dominant Islamist influence across the Sunni world. They are coming to a friendly neighborhood near you, closer to home than you may realize. Here in the United States, their public relations organizations have surreptitiously become part of the establishment of American Islam's mouthpieces. Organs like the Islamic Society of North America , Council of American Islamic Relations, the Muslim Students Associations and others now speak for all Muslim Americans, whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not. They claim to speak for all American Muslims capitalizing on the fact that we are a fairly dispersed, politically naive, hardworking, minority Diaspora far too busy contributing to American society to pay attention to the development of self-appointed mouthpieces rising like Sleeping Beauty's forest around us. Theirs have been the loudest voices in the Ground Zero Islamic Center debate, pushing for entitlements and polarizing society and more recently the histrionic outcries denouncing the proposed hearings on Radical Islam in America, hearings to propose precisely what they and others seek to conceal.
Make no mistake, the Muslim Brotherhood is a menacingly ambitious group which seeks staggering influence in international and domestic politics and has an unshakable value of installing an ultraorthodox Sharia through the bedrock of constitutions and democracy in a way that will favor repression, social control, and seek to expunge pluralism and secularity. Any educated pluralistic Muslim recognizes that secular democracy in fact encompasses all the Islamic ideals rendering even a thoughtful nuanced rendition of Sharia (yes there is more than one brand of Sharia) largely redundant in democracies such as America and Britain's.
Relevant to us now is to remember the Muslim Brotherhood's beginnings (and most tenacious roots) are in fact Egyptian, where they have long been a significant source of support to a neglected populace. Founded in 1928 by an Egyptian schoolteacher, Hasan Banaa, the Muslim Brotherhood began working through charity and education. Like any self-respecting movement, they began as a grassroots, community-based organization. They cleverly focused on mosques, neighborhoods and local support groups. Somehow, this ground-up approach confers a deceptive legitimacy and altruism to a profoundly narcissistic organization bent on exploiting precisely the most vulnerable in society for their grander schemes.
Steadily their influence increased until now they have representation in many Sunni Islamist governments and chapters in over 70 countries. In the United States they function covertly as components to community advocacy groups who are inexplicably empowered by a naïve or perhaps deliberately wily US administration fulfilling short sighted politically correct goals while persistently failing to see the risks presented by engaging with such organizations at the exclusion of the influences of smaller and far more moderate groups. Further, with over 30 chapters in the United States the groups themselves are impossible to ignore, carrying with them a fairly vocal constituency. Their sheer size and organization effectively suffocate competing voices struggling to make alternate, pluralistic and secular Muslim American viewpoints known.
Mubarak's downfall leaves little to expand into this sudden, once virtual and now potential space. The expanding cavity of chaos will literally implode, carrying forth the accelerated arrival of an intensely invigorated resurgent Islamist leadership of Egypt which will gain popular support, whether the Egyptians like it or not. Fear not, my view is not contrarian, merely realistically pessimistic. The Muslim Brotherhood needn't be a proportional majority. We need only look to Lebanon to see what an armed and knifing minority party in the form of Hezbollah can do to wrestle a weak state into submission, like a Trojan horse, from within. Admittedly, majority representation would be nice from the Muslim Brotherhood's view, but ready havoc can be effectively wreaked with mere critical minority representation parasitically embedded in the apparatus of a fragile, still cartilaginous democracy.
The years of peaceful Egyptian relations with Israel, the keystone to a functioning Middle East and the gateway to wider stability are possibly at an abrupt end. A new era is arriving. Israel must now worry about a Southern front once more. Egyptian cooperation with the US on the War on Terror and their tacit collaboration in 'containing' the Palestinian problem are all on the table now.
Tonight, I watch superheated protesters -- hijabed Egyptian women -- with excellent English, express their venomous contempt for Mubarak. Repeatedly, woman after woman fails to identify Mubarak's craven deficits in the areas of civic progress. Instead, the passionate protesters repeatedly cite his unwavering alliance with Israel and the US. The capacity for introspection in this exhausted populace, like the rest of the jaded Arab Muslim world, is non existent. Frightened, like a babe who hears his own inaugural, brutal bawl, Arab Muslims articulate the first sonnets of an incandescent, broiling rage, both marveling and terrified at the discovery of their own global voice.
Whatever the new leadership of Egypt, we can be sure the coalition government, and ultimately the new majority government, will be in an astonishingly powerful position to exercise regional leverage, while both the Arab Gulf States and the United States feverishly appease the nascent government with billion dollar carrots and flatfooted diplomacy. Anything to buy cooperation -- Egypt is just too crucial a pawn in the regional and (ultimately) world order. Unfortunately, fundamentalist groups have a spectacularly well-developed apparatus decades old in maturity to capitalize on such leverage. They are deeply rooted in community. They are heavily veiled in a manufactured man-made Islam. They are most of all fluently versed in the mesmerizing dialects of violent preemptive jihad, Islamist nihilism and rabid antisemitism. All told, this is a monster which is poised, primed and prepared to unleash its full influence.
Arab nations throughout the region are rightly on tenterhooks, popping their Valiums washed down with imported Jack Daniels as they compulsively channel surf between Al Jazeera, Al Arabiyah, LBC and others. Will we be next? they ask themselves, swiveling their jeweled worry beads. Only time will tell. Yet of one thing can we can all be certain: as Ummah Duniyah roars, something in the bosom of every Arab Muslim finally stirs.
We can all agree: the giant sleeps no more.