If the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda end up governing or playing a large role in the governments in Egypt and Tunisia, there’s a pretty good chance it won’t look like Iran circa 1979. Here’s why.
The model for both of these movements–explicitly, in the case of Ennahda–is the AKP. What they will probably wish to do above all, at first, is reassure. They don’t want a civil war that they’d lose; they don’t want to rule by terror; and they won’t have to. They know things will go much easier for them if they lead with temperate, inclusive, tolerant rhetoric and campaign–above all–on the economy. They’ll talk so much about the economy and democracy that the Western media will rise up as one and say, “Look, why are you so worried? They’re moderates. All that radical stuff is in the past. They just want the same freedom to practice their religion they would have in the United States, and wow, look at those growth rates! Tigers!” In power, they will focus intensely, like the proverbial laser-beam, on creating the appearance of economic growth. (Long term growth? Heck, who knows if tomorrow will ever come?) There will be no fulminating anti-Western rhetoric (except on special occasions), no hand-choppings, no stonings. Everyone will heave a big sigh of relief.
We won’t see anything all that alarming until these parties have solidly established themselves in all the organs of the bureaucracy, the military and the judiciary. By then they’ll have figured out exactly how to win elections that look pretty free and fair: They’ll get a lot of help from the world’s best professional political advisers.
Then we’ll see subtle things, little feelers–they’ll wait to see if anyone in the rest of the world cares; they’ll notice that no one does (since they’re so busy being grateful that these governments haven’t yet introduced floggings and stonings). Women will slowly disappear from public life, but it will happen so gradually no one will really be able to pin it on them, and besides, it’s just women. In Egypt they’ll co-opt some very prominent Copts who will go out and shill for them, talking about the terrific reforms they’re putting in place to improve their status (until the shills quit in disgust, but that won’t get much media play overseas).
They won’t rip up the peace treaty with Israel. That’s stupid. They don’t need that kind of hassle. You don’t stay in power by bringing disaster upon the heads of the people you propose to govern, and of course they realize that what people actually want are jobs, not an apocalyptic war with Israel.
But right before every election–and yes, they’ll hold them–something odd will happen (a strange incident involving a ship full of unusually violent humanitarian aid workers, for example). Games like this have a terrible potential to get out of hand, so yes, we should worry about this. And these governments won’t do much on the diplomatic scene to stop Iran from, for example, swallowing other Middle East countries whole, or acquiring nuclear weapons. Not that they did much before, but they’ll do even less. The consequences of this won’t seem that bad until the day Iran announces it’s a nuclear power. (But who knows, maybe by then the Iranian regime itself will have collapsed–you’ve got to admit we just don’t know which governments are going to fall next.)
The good news: I predict this won’t happen overnight. If I’m right, that gives the Egyptians and Tunisians who don’t love this vision of the future a lot of time to organize and come up with a better alternative. If they want to know how to do it, they’ve got a great model in the Turkish opposition. Just look at everything they’ve done, and do exactly the opposite.
The opposition here could easily be in power if they weren’t so utterly determined to lose. There’s nothing that magical about the AKP, they’re just a reasonably competent political party running against a sea of incompetent ones.
So, don’t despair yet.
More By Claire Berlinski