'March Of Millions' Join In Egypt Protests
MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
We're continuing today with our focus on the events in Egypt. And we're noting that the street protests there follow the previous uprising in Tunisia, which led to the ouster of the long-time leader there, and are being followed by demonstrations in Algeria and Northern Sudan, all North African countries.
So we wondered why the African Union has been practically silent. We're going to call upon the Associated Press's chief Africa correspondent in a few minutes. But first, back to Egypt, where demonstrations are in their eighth day. Egyptians were out in droves for what was being called the march of millions.
The army has said it will not use force against the demonstrators. To this point, the protests that have rocked Cairo, Alexandria and Suez seem to be mostly secular. But behind the frontlines, an opposition coalition has formed, choosing Egypt's Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and including Egypt's Islamist opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now, for years, President Hosni Mubarak has cautioned that if he were to step down, extremists would, he has said, fill the power vacuum. We wanted to talk more about this and we want to know more about the Muslim Brotherhood. So we've called upon Shadi Hamid. He is an expert in Islamist political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He is the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. That's a think tank based in Washington, D.C. He's with us now from Doha, Qatar. Shadi Hamid, thank you so much for joining us.
SHADI HAMID: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Could I just ask you to go back a little bit and explain for our audience, who is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? What is their role?
HAMID: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest Islamist movement in the world. They were founded in 1928 in Egypt. Today they remain the largest opposition grouping in the country, with hundreds of thousands of members and supporters. Their focus decades ago was on the implementation of Sharia law. They focused mostly on social and moral issues. Over the last two decades they focused more on electoral politics, participating in the Democratic process. They've also, after 9/11, made democracy something of a call to arms. So they really started to emphasize political and constitutional reform and working with secular and liberal opposition groups for political reform.
So in that sense they have become more moderate over time. And it's worth emphasizing that they are a nonviolent movement. And they are part of the Egyptian political scene. They are technically banned in Egypt, but they are tolerated. So everyone knows that they're there. I've been to their headquarters several times. People know where it is. So it's sort of this mixture between a banned party and a legal one. So they're sort of in legal limbo.
Up until just the most recent elections, the Brotherhood had 88 seats in the Egyptian parliament, which is 20 percent. So in that sense, they had a major presence in parliament, which I think says something. I mean that's obviously a very public manifestation of their power. And I should also note, while they have committed to democracy in a variety of ways, they still are a very socially conservative group.
And they do hold positions that many Americans would feel uncomfortable about, such as on women's rights and the role of Christian minorities. That said, they aren't a threat in any security sense. And I think that's worth emphasizing, because we're hearing a lot of alarmism about the rise of the Brotherhood and how this might mean another Iran in Egypt.
MARTIN: To that end, I want to play a short clip from Mohamed ElBaradei on the American program, ABC News "This Week" - Sunday - a political program. This is a short clip from that interview. Here's what he said. And he essentially echoes your point. Here it is.
MOHAMED ELBARADEI: The Muslim Brotherhoods are religiously conservative. They are no way extremists. They are no way using violence. They are not a majority of the Egyptian people. I mean, that is - they are not. This is what the regime sold to the West and to the U.S. It's either us, repression, or al-Qaida type Islamists.
MARTIN: So the question I would have - do you agree with his characterization?
HAMID: Yeah. This is a very good point that he's making. The Brotherhood is not a majority of the Egyptian population. And the regime has long used the threat of the Brotherhood to say exactly that. It's either us or the Islamists, so America, take your pick. And America has often sided with the Mubarak regime precisely for that reason.
MARTIN: I want to go back to something that you were telling us earlier, which is that they have about 20 percent of the seats in the parliament now. How is that possible, that a banned political party has 20 percent of the seats in parliament?
HAMID: Well, this is the weird thing about Egyptian politics. So the Brotherhood cannot run in elections as the Brotherhood. They have to run as individuals. So that's a little bit of a technicality, but that's how it works, legally speaking. The regime has tried to show the world that it's not a full autocracy, that there is space for competition and opposition. So that's why they have tolerated this type of participation in the past.
They don't want to destroy the Brotherhood altogether because they know the Brotherhood has a strong portion of the Egyptian street and does have a level of popularity. So there is this kind of tacit accommodation where the two kind of coexist but in a very tense fashion.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Shadi Hamid. He is the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He's an expert in Islamist political parties. And we're talking about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. We're talking about what role they are playing in the protest now and what role they could play in the politics of Egypt in the future.
And so, Shadi Hamid, I wanted to ask, what about the Muslim Brotherhood's posture toward Israel? I mean, one of the concerns in the United States is even if the Muslim Brotherhood is avowedly anti-violent, would they tolerate others with more extremist views? Or would they enable others with more extremist views? And what would be their posture toward Israel? Do we know?
HAMID: Well, first of all, we're getting ahead of ourselves, because there's no chance that the Brotherhood would be in charge of Egyptian foreign policy. The Brotherhood has made clear it doesn't want to win in future elections. It doesn't want to have a leadership position.
MARTIN: Why don't they, by the way?
HAMID: The Brotherhood is very sensitive to international opinion. They know the world will get extremely nervous if they rise to power. And they're aware of what happened in Algeria in 1991. When an Islamist party came to power through elections, the international community and France and the U.S. in particular supported a military coup that ended democracy in Algeria. So the Brotherhood is aware that maybe the world isn't ready for Islamists just yet.
And I think also, the Brotherhood is not a political party in the strict sense of the word. They are a religious movement. And religious movements aren't always interested in power. What the Brotherhood wants to do is have enough freedom of space to engage in social and educational activities, to conduct preaching, and to rebuild its organization.
Let's keep in mind, the Brotherhood has been severely repressed in recent years. So they want to use this coming phase to use freedom to rebuild slowly and start to engage in society in a more public manner, instead of always worrying whether or not they'll be arrested.
On the issue of Israel, it is true that the Brotherhood does have strong anti- Israel attitudes and has spoken out against the peace treaty. That said, I think it's important to see how - when Islamists come to power, they tend to become more pragmatic. So, yes, while they're in the opposition, the brotherhood has taken a strong line. But if they are in a position of responsibility, they may become more pragmatic because in the end, if they want - if they try to cancel the peace treaty with Israel, then the U.S. might cut aid. The U.S. could pressure on Egypt. And that's a dangerous situation to be in and they're aware of that.
MARTIN: And, finally, Shadi Hamid, in the minutes that we have left, I would just like to ask more broadly about your reaction to what you're seeing in Egypt as a person who's spent quite a lot of time studying political formation in the region. A lot of people that we've talked to in recent days have said that they're surprised that they've considered this to be a fairly apathetic country as far as - rather that people, their sort of political yearnings have suppressed for so long that they've kind of lost the habit of confronting the government. I'm just curious your reaction. Are you surprised by what you're seeing?
HAMID: Well, there has always been this reputation of Egyptians being politically passive and apathetic. I've never found that to be true. I think it was just a matter that they've been repressed so consistently that they started to wonder what's the point of us going out into the streets if all we're going to get is mass imprisonment and torture and so on.
But that, the anger and frustration has been building for three decades, though. And when that builds up, it builds up. One day it's going to explode. And I think many commentators had been warning years ago that we have to take action on Egypt because it is a society on the brink. Autocracies don't last forever. And sooner or later people will discover their voice.
And I think what's so encouraging about what we're seeing in Egypt and Tunisia elsewhere is Arabs are discovering they have the power to determine their own destiny, that they don't have to wait for the U.S. or anyone else. They can go out into the streets and demand their freedoms. And if there are enough of them, no one, even the most repressive regimes in the world can stop them.
MARTIN: So, you feel this is no longer - these are no longer country protests, these are now regional protests. Would that be accurate?
HAMID: I think we're experiencing an Arab democratic moment. This is historic. And I think we're going to start to see incredible changes throughout the region. Tunisia seemed like it might've been an exception, but now that we've seen what's happening in Egypt, and we should be clear what we're seeing right now - this is not just the largest protest in Egyptian history, but they may be the largest protest in Arab history. I'm not aware of anything that really comes close to what we've been seeing.
And now Yemen has - Yemeni opposition leaders have called for a day of rage on Thursday. Syrian activists have called for their own day of rage on February 5th. Sudan seems to have a day of rage every day. So we're seeing something akin to a domino effect. It seems that these authoritarian regimes have been shown to be not stable at all. And this was a big misconception on our part as Americans to assume that these regimes could last forever. Autocracies do not last forever.
MARTIN: Shadi Hamid is the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, which is based in Washington, D.C., but he was joining us from Doha, Qatar. Shadi Hamid, thank you so much for joining us.
HAMID: Thank you for having me.