Militants, Women and Tahrir Sq.
Published: February 5, 2011
Damon Winter/The New York Times
When Westerners watched television images of the popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, they winced at the government’s thuggery toward protesters. But some also flinched at the idea of a popular democracy that might give greater voice to Islamic fundamentalism.
In 1979, a grass-roots uprising in Iran led to an undemocratic regime that oppresses women and minorities and destabilizes the region. In 1989, uprisings in Eastern Europe led to the rise of stable democracies. So if Egyptian protesters overcome the government, would this be 1979 or 1989?
No one can predict with certainty. But let me try to offer a dose of reassurance.
After spending last week here on Tahrir Square, talking to protesters — even as President Mubarak’s thugs attacked our perimeter with bricks, Molotov cocktails, machetes and occasional gunfire — I emerge struck by the moderation and tolerance of most protesters.
Maybe my judgment is skewed because pro-Mubarak thugs tried to hunt down journalists, leading some of us to be stabbed, beaten and arrested — and forcing me to abandon hotel rooms and sneak with heart racing around mobs carrying clubs with nails embedded in them. The place I felt safest was Tahrir Square — “free Egypt,” in the protesters’ lexicon — where I could pull out a camera and notebook and ask anybody any question.
I constantly asked women and Coptic Christians whether a democratic Egypt might end up a more oppressive country. They invariably said no — and looked so reproachfully at me for doubting democracy that I sometimes retreated in embarrassment.
“If there is a democracy, we will not allow our rights to be taken away from us,” Sherine, a university professor, told me (I’m not using full names to protect the protesters). Like many, she said that Americans were too obsessed with the possibility of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood gaining power in elections.
“We do not worry about the Muslim Brotherhood,” Sherine said. “They might win 25 percent of the votes, but if they do not perform then they will not get votes the next time.”
Sherine has a point. Partly because of Western anxieties, fundamentalist Muslims have rarely run anything — so instead they lead the way in denouncing the corruption, incompetence and brutality of pro-Western autocrats like Mr. Mubarak. The upshot is that they win respect from many ordinary citizens, but my hunch is that they would lose support if they actually tried to administer anything.
For example, in 1990s Yemen, an Islamic party named Islah became part of a coalition government after doing well in elections. As a result, Islah was put in charge of the Education Ministry. Secular Yemenis and outsiders were aghast that fundamentalists might brainwash children, but the Islamists mostly proved that they were incompetent at governing. In the next election, their support tumbled.
It’s true that one of the most common protester slogans described Mr. Mubarak as a stooge of America, and many Egyptians chafe at what they see as a supine foreign policy. I saw one caricature of Mr. Mubarak with a Star of David on his forehead and, separately, a sign declaring: “Tell him in Hebrew, and then he might get the message!” Yet most people sounded pragmatic, favoring continued peace with Israel while also more outspoken support for Palestinians, especially those suffering in Gaza.
I asked an old friend here in Cairo, a woman with Western tastes that include an occasional glass of whiskey, whether the Muslim Brotherhood might be bad for peace. She thought for a moment and said: “Yes, possibly. But, from my point of view, in America the Republican Party is bad for peace as well.”
If democracy gains in the Middle East, there will be some demagogues, nationalists and jingoists, just as there are in America and Israel, and they may make diplomacy more complicated. But remember that it’s Mr. Mubarak’s repression, imprisonment and torture that nurtured angry extremists like Ayman al-Zawahri of Al Qaeda, the right-hand man of Osama bin Laden. It would be tragic if we let our anxieties impede our embrace of freedom and democracy in the world’s most populous Arab nation.
I’m so deeply moved by the grit that Egyptians have shown in struggling against the regime — and by the help that some provided me, at great personal risk, in protecting me from thugs dispatched by America’s ally. Let’s show some faith in the democratic ideals for which these Egyptians are risking their lives.
I think of Hamdi, a businessman who looked pained when I asked whether Egyptian democracy might lead to oppression or to upheavals with Israel or the price of oil. “The Middle East is not only for oil,” he reminded me. “We are human beings, exactly like you people.”
“We don’t hate the American people,” he added. “They are pioneers. We want to be like them. Is that a crime?”