Late to the Party, First to the Cake

The Egyptian revolution that would see Mubarak resign was begun without the help of the Muslim Brotherhood, but now that Egypt has gone to the polls, the Islamist group is coming out the big winner.

Israel's former ambassador to Egypt, Yitzhak Levanon, remembers well the days that opened the revolution. "January 25 was a holiday in Egypt, marking Police Day. I was at home because our security personnel asked me to stay there; we had been hearing reports about young people using Twitter and Facebook to make plans to demonstrate in central Cairo. The day before, [President Hosni] Mubarak had carried out his usual schedule, and even met with [Palestinian Authority head] Mahmoud Abbas.

"Some of the young people who organized the demonstration claimed that they expected 15,000 people. Nobody was thinking in terms of a revolution. The state's control of its internal security forces was absolute, so very few people believed that the events [earlier that month] in Tunis could occur in Egypt. The regime's big mistake was to employ disproportionate police force that [Tuesday] afternoon to crack down on the demonstrators; this encouraged people to continue to protest and issue calls for a 'march of the million' the coming Friday. In these first days, the Muslim Brotherhood didn't take part in the protest; authorities warned the organization's members not to intervene. But on Thursday afternoon, the Muslim Brotherhood apparently grasped what was happening and issued a call for its members to participate. Thursday afternoon I sent a message to Jerusalem saying the djinn ["genie," in Arabic] was out of the bottle.' That was the feeling I got after discussions with lots of people."

Muslim Brotherhood - Reuters - Jan 2012

On Friday, Levanon was again asked by his bodyguards to remain at home. That day, he recalls, "young people used the social networks to instruct people to demonstrate at a variety of locations and not congregate in one spot, in order to make it hard for the police. Security forces were exhausted but set up barriers along a number of roads, so the demonstrators gathered at Tahrir Square. Up to that moment, nobody was talking about a Tahrir Square uprising. When I was at home, we heard that the police and state security forces had simply collapsed. Security personnel literally took off their uniforms and escaped. Mubarak ordered the army out into the streets, but chaos ruled. Acts of crime and looting proliferated, so each neighborhood set up a popular committee comprised of young people armed with iron rods and clubs, whose job was to protect residents' property. For security reasons, we had to leave the house and go somewhere else."

When it took place, few demonstrators believed that the rally of January 25, 2011, would bring about Mubarak's removal, free elections, and ultimately, what appears to be the Muslim Brotherhood's control of Egypt's parliamentary system.

This past Wednesday, a year after the anti-Mubarak demonstrations began, tens of thousands of people again crowded into Tahrir Square. Army and police forces were almost nowhere to be found. Some of the demonstrators displayed strong emotion as they gave interviews to Arab media outlets. "This is a celebration: The revolution succeeded and it will continue," one declared. "I have come to celebrate, and with Allah's help, the state will grow stronger," said a second demonstrator. A third noted: "We managed to rid the state of the old regime, but we have yet to fulfill a single one of the revolution's 20 goals."

The week of celebration began on Monday, when parliament's lower house, the People's Assembly, democratically selected a new chairman, Saad el-Katatni, who is secretary-general of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice political arm. Katatni won 80 percent of the assembly's votes. Like some colleagues who delivered remarks during the tense opening session (shouts and arguments in Egypt's parliamentary assembly hit levels comparable to the Knesset ), Katatni shed tears when he recalled people killed during last year's tumultuous demonstrations.

Katatni and his Muslim Brotherhood comrades didn't mention the fact that their organization was not present at the first demonstrations and joined the uprising only belatedly, on Friday, January 28. The Muslim Brotherhood has managed to wrest credit for Egypt's version of the Arab Spring out of the hands of its young secular compatriots who took the first, fateful steps a year ago.

It appears that nobody in Egypt has too many reasons to celebrate. The secular young people who made history in the country endured an electoral debacle in balloting for parliament's lower house. The Muslim Brotherhood and members of the Salafi faction won a combined 70 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly; the party of the secular demonstrators (the "coalition of the youth of the revolution" ) received just 2 percent of the vote. The frustration felt by these young revolutionaries could be seen on Wednesday this week, when some of them skirmished with Muslim Brotherhood supporters; several were injured in the scuffle.

In the meantime, the Muslim Brotherhood, which will probably determine the identity of Egypt's next prime minister after the June elections, has to deal with double-digit inflation, 12 percent unemployment, budget deficits and a crippling decrease in tourism (Cairo, Aswan and Luxor are the places hurt most significantly by this drop in tourism ). The Brotherhood supports economic steps taken recently by the transitional government, including the request for a $3.2-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. That position contradicts a decades-long stance by the Brotherhood against taking assistance from the "West."

The Brotherhood's economists understand that, if the country's economy is to be saved, reforms need to be instituted in its foreign aid framework. The Brotherhood's pragmatism on such issues is likely to come under attack by the Salafi faction and people hurt by cuts in subsidies enacted under economic reforms.

The supreme military council has the task of guaranteeing an orderly transition of power through the elections in June. It will also try to protect its own status and authority. The Brotherhood has agreed to the continued functioning of the government of Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri through the presidential elections, yet it defies the army by demanding the right to oversee the government's budget.

The Brotherhood will try to curb the army's authority after the June balloting; some top army officers could find themselves under investigation or even on trial for suspected acts of violence against demonstrators.

'The Zionists must be humiliated'

The face of the new Egypt is not a source of great optimism for the average Israeli. Chants cried out by Muslim Brotherhood supporters at demonstrations - "Israel must fall," "Hitler said long ago that the Zionists must be humiliated" - are only part of the problem. A report compiled by the Middle East Media Research Institute, known as MEMRI, which trawls the Arab media for anti-Semitic and anti-Israel articles, finds both on the Brotherhood's website. The report, filed by B. Chernitsky, quotes statements by Muhammad Badi, the Brotherhood's "General Guide."

In June 2011, following the uprising, Badi declared, according to the MEMRI translation: "Allah warned us against the deceit of the Jews and their dangerous role in sparking wars: 'Whenever they kindle a fire for war Allah puts it out, and they strive to make mischief in the land; and Allah does not love the mischief-makers [Koran 5:64].' Their hands light the hidden fuse ... [and] little time passes before the fire spreads to the field of war, including Islamic lands .... The war in Sudan and its division are their handiwork; the internal struggle and war among the Palestinians is [likewise part] of their plan. [For this reason], the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah angered them."

About a month and a half after the start of the uprising in Egypt, Levanon proposed to his colleagues in the Foreign Ministry that Israel open a secret channel of dialogue with the Brotherhood. He thought European intermediaries might facilitate this channel. The idea never got off the ground. Nonetheless, Levanon told Haaretz this week that the movement is not likely to adopt an extremely radical stance. "Badi and others have met with U.S. government representatives and delivered moderate messages regarding relations with Israel," he says. "They know that if they sit with the Salafi faction in one coalition, their policy is likely to become radical. That's not what the Brotherhood wants; the organization is more likely to forge an alliance with the Wafd party [the third largest party] or with the liberals."

Levanon believes that a power struggle in the Brotherhood between young militants and Badi and other veteran members has already been decided in favor of the latter; the moderate wing's status was strengthened by the organization's success in parliamentary elections.

Anti-Meshal winds

A week ago, Haaretz disclosed that during a Hamas leadership meeting in Khartoum, in late December, the head of the movement's political wing, Khaled Meshal, announced that he will not seek to extend his position as political bureau chief. One explanation of this twist is that Meshal is looking to be appointed head of a new Muslim Brotherhood branch in Palestine. This week, Mashal met with Muhammad Badi in Egypt. About a month ago, Muslim Brotherhood forces in the region split into sub-units, based, respectively, in Palestine, Jordan and parts of the Persian Gulf. From this point onward, Meshal can operate as the Brotherhood's independent delegate in Palestine.

Yet there were likely other reasons for his announcement. The Hamas leader realizes that winds in the movement are blowing against him, owing to decisions he reached without coordinating his position with Hamas' Gaza leadership. He fears that he would be defeated were elections held for his post at the top of Hamas' political arm (elections that are supposed to take place in the coming months ).

A leading political commentator in Gaza speculated this week that Meshal's announcement was a ploy designed to help bolster his position, ahead of these anticipated elections. Whatever its intention, it is possible that Meshal's announcement could catalyze a process by which leadership positions in Hamas in general fall into new hands.

Some top movement members, particularly in the Strip, were not very impressed by the current political bureau head's "threat." A day after the Haaretz disclosure, Hamas in Gaza issued a statement confirming that Meshal has declared that he will not vie again for a leadership role in the movement. It seems that Meshal's statement, originally made behind closed doors, has become a weapon used by his foes in Gaza, and that they are now blazing a trail for his departure.