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.

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