Egypt: Islamism Meets Realism

Christopher Hitchens

I don’t think that a single newspaper or magazine article on Egypt has ever failed to mention the presence, in the wings of Egyptian politics, of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s one of those learned references that is de rigueur for every commentator and analyst. Yet it was notable, as both the Egyptian and the Tunisian regimes began to crumble in January, that the local branches and equivalents of the Brotherhood seemed to be as thunderstruck as everyone else. True, some have suggested that the Islamists are playing a longer game and waiting for an opportunity to seize control—as, under vastly different circumstances, they managed to do in Iran after the revolution of 1979.

An alternative way of thinking about this occurs to me. Consider the immensity of Egypt’s problems. It has millions more educated people than it can find work for and an enormous class of peasants and laborers whose existence is a daily struggle for mere survival. Egypt depends enormously for its economic viability on being able to offer hospitality to Western tourists (which is why Mubarak’s earlier crackdown on Muslim fanatics who attacked visitors to the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings was widely popular). The peace treaty with Israel is resented by many citizens, but no serious person believes that Egypt could even hope to fight another war with the Jewish state. One in ten Egyptians is a Christian. Egypt’s immediate southern neighbor, Sudan, has just seen the secession of a huge swath of its territory, led by Africans who want to escape a brutal Islamic regime. This by no means exhausts the complexities.

The slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood—in effect its only slogan—is “Islam Is the Solution.” I certainly regard this slogan as a sinister one, in that it expresses the totalitarian idea that one religion really is “the solution” in all matters, whether public or private. But, when measured against the realities, one can’t help noticing that it is also a rather pathetic slogan. In what respect is Islam (in its Sunni version, just for now) “the solution” to any of the problems I’ve just listed? Is it possible that, with a part of themselves, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood actually understand this and are thus slightly reluctant to take on the responsibility of running this vast nation and society?

Of course, if experience was a teacher, then the appeal of Islamist propaganda would necessarily be much less than it really is. Probably the most outstanding instance of state failure on record is that of Pakistan, which attempted to make religion into the very definition of nationality and has suffered ever since from every form of regionalism and tribalism (including the secession of Bangladesh after a horrific Muslim-on-Muslim slaughter in 1971) as well as staggering corruption, deep poverty, and military dictatorship. These problems do not stop many Pakistanis from demanding that the country become more theocratic rather than less. In neighboring Afghanistan, too, there are people willing to commit murder in order to increase the already strong grip of fundamentalism on a chronically backward society. Religion in general suffers from the absence of a self-critical faculty and from the dismal belief that faith is a virtue in itself and only needs to be redoubled and intensified: these deformities are seen at their most vividly repulsive when harnessed to jihad.

So we can certainly expect to see people in Egypt, their foreheads bruised with piety, yelling that all will be well if only Sharia can be enforced. But one also senses that many Egyptians, accustomed enough by the experience of a fake democracy and a pseudo-modernity to demand the real thing, are immune to such appeals. If you drew a graph of the Muslim world that showed a ranking by prosperity and at least partial democracy, it would match the degree of openness of the different countries to secular influence. Bosnia, Albania, Tunisia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey (these in no especial order) are relatively flourishing. Something similar could be said of the autonomous Kurdish area in Iraq. Whereas religious absolutism, whether in power or in its so-called insurgent form, has beggared an extremely wealthy country (Iran), come close to ruining a potentially wealthy country (Iraq), and reduced Afghanistan and Somalia to a level of chaos and misery that almost defies description.

If one were really cynical, it might be tempting to say: let the Islamists try to run the show and prove to the world that they are not up to the job. But as Iran has demonstrated, that would be irresponsible and cruel because it would condemn countless people to be used up in an experiment in failure. Moreover, theocratic systems do not blame themselves when their countries slide into civil war, poverty, and stagnation. Instead, they blame the machinations of Jews and Crusaders and export their uneducated but brainwashed young zealots to spread violence elsewhere.

But this dire effect need not all be one way. The rising generation has had a chance to make comparisons and to consider alternatives. For at least the first few weeks—up until the time of this writing—the citizens of Cairo showed a really admirable solidity and maturity, both in their civic conduct and in their demands. The air was not rent with screams about the greatness of God or the need for war with infidels. This suggests to me that the initiative does not lie with those who stupidly proclaim that all solutions are to be found in one book.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. His memoir Hitch-22 is published in paperback by Twelve.


I don’t think that a single newspaper or magazine article on Egypt has ever failed to mention the presence, in the wings of Egyptian politics, of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s one of those learned references that is de rigueur for every commentator and analyst. Yet it was notable, as both the Egyptian and the Tunisian …

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