• -
  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 6, 2011 @ 11:37 am

    Egypt and Ireland: A Study in Contrasts

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    What happens in Egypt in the coming weeks and months will have repercussions for us all. For example, the peace treaty with Israel could be in peril and, if that broke down, we could be looking at another war in fairly short order. It puts Ireland’s problems in perspective. At least we have a stable, consensual democracy, although failure to deal with the economic problems we face could ultimately put that at risk too.

    Events in Egypt are reminiscent of the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s. The Shah’s regime was even more authoritatian than Mubarak’s and the appearance of the masses on the streets seemed to presage the arrival of a modern democracy. What we got was rather different from what was expected at the time in the West, to put it mildly.

    There seem to be moves afoot to arrive at some form of compromise between the current rulers of  Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. That may not be possible and the advent of an Islamic regime is probably inevitable. Whether it is on the model of Tehran or, say, Ankara/Istanbul will be crucial to peace in the region.

    Despite our international image as a ‘rebel people’, the Irish situation is comparatively quiescent. There have been marches and demonstrations but, by and large, dissent has been channeled through the media and the parliamentary system. Greece, too, after some initial turmoil, appears to have settled down. Everything depends on whether the economic crisis is indeed coming to an end, or if there is worse to come.  

    The following is a report the present writer filed from Cairo just over four years ago. It reflects the political climate in Egypt at the time: placid on the surface but with strong undercurrents. Even in a political system deeply unfriendly to their aims, the Muslim Brotherhood were doing  well in elections. There was also a brave willingness on the part of secular political dissidents to go against the State machine.

    Irish Times, 9 December 2006: With the Middle East in turmoil, Egypt remains a haven of relative calm, but for how long?  Deaglán de Bréadún from Cairo:-

    Cairo is a city of teeming millions where cars and people pour like a river along the streets, but it is also a very pacific and safe place. Egypt may be number 111 on the United Nations Human Development Index – compared to Ireland at number 4 – but the theory that poverty and underdevelopment breed violence and crime does not apply to this country.

    Apart from sporadic acts of terrorism against tourists and tourist resorts, for the most part Egypt is a haven of stability in an increasingly disturbed region. But with Iraq gripped by civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once again at boiling-point, Lebanon in turmoil and neighbouring Sudan torn with strife over Darfur, how long can Egypt remain relatively calm and peaceful?

    It’s a critical question for US foreign policy and for international stability. As elsewhere, radical Islam is on the rise in Egypt. In parliamentary elections last year, the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 out of 444 seats despite operating in an environment where the rules are set by the governing National Democratic Party.

    In the Cold War era, Egypt was a client-state of the Soviet Union and relics of that time still survive in the country’s economy. In the small clothing-shops on Cairo’s Talaat Harb street, underworked assistants stand listlessly at the counters and there is a different person to look after every stage of your purchase from browsing through wrapping to handing over the cash.

    The last time I saw this phenomenon was in Moscow in the early 1990s during the transition from the Soviet economic approach which was so memorably summed up by the cynical worker who said: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”

    Considerable efforts have been made in recent years to modernise the Egyptian economy, and growth is now running at more than 6 per cent a year. Attracting foreign direct investment is critical to the continuation of this growth but many obstacles remain.

    The appalling traffic situation in Cairo is the most obvious disincentive to anyone seeking to do business there. The streets are clotted with cars, many of them ancient Ladas or other Soviet-era vehicles. Zebra crossings are rare and pedestrians wander carelessly between the cars, seemingly oblivious to their own safety.

    At the same time there is a vibrancy and energy about the city that is very attractive. And despite the fact that I was frequently the sole westerner in the crowd, nobody even gave me an unfriendly look, never mind a hostile word or gesture.

    The Metro Cinema on Talaat Harb Street is showing two films arising from the 9/11 events, World Trade Center, starring Nicholas Cage, and United 93, about the doomed plane which was apparently retaken by the passengers after it was hijacked.

    The leader of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, was born in Egypt and the hotel I stayed in is located in Giza, the Cairo suburb where he grew up. Fundamentalism is said to be growing in Egypt, but although I saw many women wearing the hijab or head-scarf on the streets of the city there were very few who had adopted the full veil or niqab.

    Egypt’s Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosni, caused a storm of controversy last month when, echoing Britain’s Jack Straw, he spoke out against wearing the niqab, which he said was “a symbol of backwardness”. In an interview, the minister, who is also a well-known abstract painter, said that “women with their beautiful hair are like flowers and should not be covered up”.

    A media colleague based in Cairo said that if Egyptian elections were genuinely democratic the Muslim Brotherhood would be running the country. This is the dilemma for George W Bush and the White House policy of encouraging democracy in the Middle East. The results may very well be unpalatable, as in the case of the Hamas victory in Palestine and the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria.

    There is also a secular opposition in Egypt, known as Kifaya, or “Enough” in English, as in, “I’ve had enough of this regime and its behaviour”. Speaking to The Irish Times, spokesman George Ishaq stressed that Kifaya was not a political party but “a movement for change”.

    The primary weapon used by Kifaya is peaceful demonstration. The first was a two-hour silent protest by 2,000 people on December 12th, 2004, outside the High Court in downtown Cairo. “This style of protest is a very new model for Egypt,” said Ishaq. A similar demonstration is planned for the same venue on Tuesday next.

    The aim is to build the maximum amount of unity among the opposition. “I want all the people,” says Ishaq. Kifaya seeks to build unity among all who have had enough of what Ishaq calls the “despotic regime” with its corruption, police brutality and “everything you don’t like”.

    He claims a membership of 18,000. The 67-year-old Ishaq has a leftist background but now describes himself as “a social liberal”. He admires Brazil’s Lula da Silva and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. “We are on the side of Lula and Chávez.”

    He and his associates opposed the Camp David Agreement signed between Egypt and Israel in 1978. But he says he is not opposed to having peaceful relations with the Israelis: “We are very keen to keep the peace, but a fair peace.”

    Egypt, which has operated under emergency legislation for the past 25 years, is not the easiest place to be against the government. “They are listening to my telephone 24 hours a day and they put microphones everywhere,” says Ishaq. “We don’t care, because if you are struggling for freedom you have to pay the price.”

    On the pro-government side, Dr Mohamed Kamal, a senior member of the ruling National Democratic Party, says the country is moving towards democracy: “We have a vision, we aspire to transform Egypt into a democratic system. We have achieved a lot over the past few years.” He points to the holding of the first multi-candidate direct elections for the presidency and the “very competitive” parliamentary elections which gave the opposition “big numbers” of seats.

    “Our record on human rights is improving,” he says. “There is unprecedented freedom of expression today in Egypt.” He says there is a proliferation of opposition and independent newspapers and that most Egyptians have access to satellite TV stations. “So Egypt is different today, but we still have a lot to do.”

    Egypt’s President Mubarak, who visited Ireland this week, is one of the world’s longest-serving heads of state. Although he remains vigorous and lively at 78 years of age, speculation is growing about his successor. The most likely candidate is his 42-year-old son Gamal, known to his friends as “Jimmy”. Meanwhile, the opposition looks set to grow. Given the level of instability in the region as a whole, the Egyptian story is likely to contain some interesting chapters in the next few years.

    • All we can say to our brothers and sisters in Ireland is to hold on!! do not take the IMF’s money/bailout don’t lose your Sovereignty Please!!!
      here in Australia we are going the same way don’t think just because we have china to fall back onto that we are not acceptable to this kind of financial terrorism from the elite bankers of this World!!
      We The “Australian Sovereignty Party’ will soon be on the electoral roll and soon Australians will have a proper Voice!
      we know that Labor and liberal here are two wings of the same bird cheating there way into the tax payers pocket ..
      so please Ireland Hold On!! your country can implement our NEW TAX POLICY
      Debit Tax

      The concept of a Debit Tax (i.e. a small tax on all financial transactions of 0.7%) is well researched and documented. Variations of this tax have names such as the Tobin tax, the Wall Street sales tax, the securities transfer tax, and even the “Robin Hood” tax
      Our Vision

      The Australian Sovereignty Party believes that Australia should be a united, democratic and sovereign nation – standing on a firm foundation of truth, freedom and justice for all.
      We actively promote the common law rights of individuals – and the obligation of our government to protect those rights, to act without favour and with courage for the benefit of all Australians.

    • seafoid says:


      An interesting insight . I am not so sure that Israel would go to war against Egypt. Israel has probably lost its most important ally in the region and will need to think carefully about how to address this. The Israeli default option of war has been less and less effective over the decades. Since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and Sabra and Shatila no Israeli military exercise has delivered what the generals promised. Cast Lead in 2008 was a disaster for Israel’s image as evidenced by its response to the Goldstone Report. The attack on the Mavi Marmara was a catastrophe. The 2006 war in Lebanon strengthened Hizb Allah and so on.

    • robespierre says:

      Al-Maududi’s inspiration of the Arab uprising in North East Africa was a direct result of Arab populations making the first move away from tribal, feudalistic systems of rule towards a form of self-government that would have been recognisable in 15th century Ireland. The old ruse of divide & conquer, intermittant alliances and intrigue etc.

      What changes was firstly the advent of imperialism be that the Ottomans, the French or the British. Then Kim Philby discovered oil in Suadi Arabia (after Libya and Iran but before Algeria). With a cold war in full swing by this stage what Fred Halliday later called the Arc of Crisis (a muslim crescent stretching from Morrocco to Indonesia) became a hotbed of dirty war. Indonesia, Egypt, Iran, Algeria and Saudi to name but a few had corrupt, despotic dictators on phony thrones as Western puppets. As a counter-reaction to this, the pan-Arab movement that grew in response to the creation of Israel found expression under the charismatic but no less repressive Nasser.

      Sayid Qutb, a moralist that many inaccurately credit with inspiring Al Queda, was brutally murdered by Nasser’s regime after an extended period of detention. He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood that won elections in the 1920′s and most elections ever since but have not been allowed to rule. Qutb’s key text “crossroads” spells out the reasons for the fomenting dissent. He was no marxist but was critical in the marxist sense of all forms of repression populist (Nasser) or colonialist.

      The only real danger from deposing the Mubarak regime is in radicalising unnecessarily a movement of the people. The muslim brotherhood are not going to shut down tourist sites or sharm el sheik of the suez canal.

      America’s disgusting attitude is due to its lack of a relationship with the failed states of Yemen and Somalia and the danger of Egypt falling into (say China’s) column as an ally. Egypt like Iraq, Syria and Jordan was aligned with the USSR for most of the Cold War.

      What we are witnessing is the last sting of Zbigniew Brezinski and his ilk in the Democratic party. Shame on America, Shame on Obama.

      Woodie Guthrie once sang “We the people, we shall overcome…” I hope the spirit of the song lives on in Cairo. The people that gave us early civilisation deserve more than this shabby and despicable response.

    • Ronan O'Sullivan says:

      The difference between the Irish and the Egyptian situation is that the Irish have too much to lose. The middle class wealthy will not sit in a square to protest because they have a mortgage and car payments to make, and they know that a change in government will not mean an end to crippling debt. The majority of Egyptian souls live below the poverty line in contrast to the spoiled Irish who have a long way to go before large scale demonstrations and pitched street battles will frighten a lazy, incumbent government.

    • Bríd says:

      “That may not be possible and the advent of an Islamic regime is probably inevitable. Whether it is on the model of Tehran or, say, Ankara/Istanbul will be crucial to peace in the region.”

      Hello?? That’s at odds with every single commentator I’ve either read or seen speaking on TV. The Muslim Brotherhood is reckoned to have support from about 20% of the Egyptian people. That’s all. And every single commentator I’ve read or heard is agreed that the situation in Iran was *completely* different. All this talk about the Muslim Brotherhood is scare mongering, largely from the USA and some Brits. Not to mention, largely from those who think the whole of the Middle East revolves around Israel. Which it doesn’t.

      “A media colleague based in Cairo said that if Egyptian elections were genuinely democratic the Muslim Brotherhood would be running the country.”

      Your media colleague needs to do more research. And talk to more Egyptians.

      “This is the dilemma for George W Bush and the White House policy of encouraging democracy in the Middle East.”

      So that’s what you thought he was doing. I should have known better than to read this at all.

    • BB says:

      Janey you were so right Deaglán……… but Egypt Shmeegypt…………we have to sort out our own dilemma and Lord, I just wish Micheál Martin could be our new Taoiseach. He’s perfect.
      Anyway, I was nearly decapitated by a Labour election campaign poster on Nassau Street in the high winds on Friday. I’m afraid I used some choice language all the way down past the grounds of me auld Alma Mater Trinity College and only to be visually assaulted by hundreds more giant likeness of Eamon Gilmore smirking (you can’t say he doesn’t smirk) down at me all the way along nearly every street on the 15A bus route. What an inordinate waste of money and OMG what is it with the visages of the Labour candidates that irks me so — Ivana Bacik’s got the look of a feminist on a mission just waiting for the chance to make a meal out of anything from the patriarchy! Look out Pet Rabbitte — fava beans and a nice chianti !! Come to think of it I didn’t see one Fianna Fail poster — yep, my vote goes to FF.

    • Egypt is in revolution. This revolution will be unique as all revolutions are unique. Where it will lead no one can tell. We can only hope that it leads to a more representative government for it’s people.

    • Elpenor Dignam says:

      The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface. — Howard Zinn

    • Liam says:

      “There seem to be moves afoot to arrive at some form of compromise between the current rulers of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. That may not be possible and the advent of an Islamic regime is probably inevitable. ”

      This is one of the most ignorant comments on the pro-democracy movement occurring in Egypt that i have read (barring Glenn Beck). It is obvious that absolutely no research has been done into what is occurring. Declan obviously just read one or two headlines and linked the two revolutions. Lazy, dangerous journalism and quite embarrassing for the Irish Times.

      The Iranian situation was very different and it’s disingenuous to compare. Like comparing the French Revolution to Berlin 1989. In a way it is actually a direct inversion of the Iranian Revolution, which was a reaction( in the main) against the westernisation of that country, whereas what’s happening in Egypt is a plea for democratic rule and transparency. Many of the people protesting in the streets have referred to Obama in a positive light ‘is he watching, can he help us?’, the opposite was (is) true in Iran.

      This is what the protestors want -’Mubarak should step down and delegate his power to the vice president to start a dialogue with a newly formed opposition coalition, observed by a neutral UN delegation, to (a) establish a constitutional assembly to amend articles 77, 78 and 88 of the Egyptian constitution to enable Egyptians to be candidates for presidency of the republic. The president should be from the people, elected by the people and cannot run for more than two terms, (b) the state of emergency in effect for over 25 years should be lifted, (c) establish monitory bodies for future elections from the judicial system, (d) establish a national coalition body to monitor the transition during the next 6 months, (e) organise elections according to international standards, (f) permanently set guidelines for establishment of legal political parties that are not vetted by the national democratic party but by an independent neutral body, (g) establish the rule of law and independent judiciary, (h) elect a new parliament representative of all parties as the current parliment is based on forged elections.’

      As you can see, no mention of Caliphate anywhere!

      I also suggest that Declan reads this article http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/22/opinion/22iht-edroy22.html?_r=2c

    • robespierre says:

      Bríd, the Muslim Brotherhood are banned from standing in elections so that claim is entirely spurious. Like Saddam Hussein and Putin for appearance sakes (and modesty – Allah be good!) Mubarak limits himself to the low eighties in presidential polls and his party have a modest 80% or so of the seats in parliament.

      The franchise also is quite strictly controlled in Egypt and any one arrested for sedition (i.e. attending a MB meeting) cannot vote. Anyone put in prison for a minor offence cannot vote…

      The only news network I would trust is Al Jazeera on matters Middle Eastern although the BBC and Le Monde aren’t bad on it either.

    • Dave says:

      …..Mubarak …..maybe it’s a case of better the devil you know than…..????? Only time will tell whether his overthrow will disturb the fine balance in the region and lead to another war involving many states. Rememeber that with Mubarak a full scale regional inter-state war every decade ended. Just get down on your kness and thank God, or goodness, that Egypt does not have nuclear weapons.

    • As usual in the blogosphere, some of the comments are a little rude and unnecessarily offensive: signs of immaturity. The worst was the guy who gratuitiously translated my name into English – and this person purports to be a friend of other countries and cultures. We hear a lot about the Muslim Brotherhood, not much about other organised opposition forces. I see the latest is that Mubarak’s supporters are intent on keeping him there for the time being. To repeat: a lot of people were delighted to see the Shah of Iran with his Savak friends being overthrown but what emerged eventually brought mixed feelings. A successful working democracy in Egypt would be a wonderful thing and surely everyone hopes that is the outcome of these dramatic events. If the peace treaty with Israel collapses, it will be a source of great concern. Israel has the Bomb, maybe Iran is getting one too. We are entering uncharted waters here.

    • robespierre says:

      You can’t look at Iran without considering the Cold War and how it was a factor in the region. The Shah was overthrown for the second time in 1979. This is after the CIA had organised the murder of the democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadeq who was trying (horror) to divert funds away from buying western military machinery to the people and charging market rate for oil.

      Reza Pahlavi Snr was initially put in by the British in the 1920s and was despised by pretty much every faction in Iran. His son came to power after WWII initially and was incredibly corrupt. His Persepolis celebrations were every bit as outrageous as Sese Seko’s follies in Zambia.

      There were three phases to the Iranian revolutions over almost two years.

      a) the overthrow
      b) secular government under two different moderate prime ministers
      c) the return of Khomeini and his gradual undermining of the constitution.

      There was meant to be a separation of powers between the law makers, clerics (including the Supreme Ruler) and government. Khomeini invented what is widely considered to be a heretical concept Velayat-i-faqih which meant that he could interpret the will of the 12th imam that Shia muslims believe is in a state of occultation and Sunni muslims believe is dead. It is this concept of velayat-i-faqih that has lead to statis in Iran and suppressed moderates. Khomeini used this as a cover to chase away all his enemies including Pashtun and Azerbaijani minorities that had stood against the shah.

      Bakhtiar and Bazargan wanted a secular constitution (1906 one) to be stuck to as it guaranteed religious freedom. Khomeini and his aparatchiks stole the revolution and implemented a theocratic form of limited democracy.

      To state this would happen in Egypt is to misread Sunni islam. The Muslim Brotherhood have moved away from hard concepts of Jahiliyya and Jihad since the mid-1990s as they have seen what it has done around them and ultimately they are closer in ethos to Hamas (a movement of the people) than to Iran.

      It would change the dynamic with Israel but I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing the way Israel has behaved over the past ten years going back to the second Intifada, the settlements and the “peace” wall.

    • Dave says:

      Yes, Deaglan…entering unchartered waters, laden with a number of mines.around. I doubt that Israel would resort to using nuclear weapons, unless on the brink of defeat, as was the case early on during the Yom Kippur war. Had they not turned it around using conventional weapons, I have no doubt that they would have used their nukes then. A nuclear armed Iran would pose much more of a threat to the existence of Israel than a conventional war against an alliance comprising Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.

      Any war however in the region may lead to destabilising all the non-democratic regimes there, with the prospect of the flow of oil being cut off to Europe and elsewhere….leading to further worsening of all our economies, I would have thought.

      As if we here didn’t have enough problems.

    • BB says:

      Wasn’t the Labour Party ‘in power’ when Mubarak’s predecessor, Sadat was assassinated? Weird.

    • robespierre says:

      There is NO basis for assuming or linking Iran with the rest of the region. Most Sunni muslims consider the Shia to be apostates. That why the Kurds and Sunni’s cooperated to suppress the Shia in Iraq and the Christians and Sunni did likewise in Syria.

      No Sunni would be caught dead espousing a principle that one of the Ulema could interpret the intended will of Yazid in the 21c to pursue a nakedly political agenda. It is perverse. The West’s treatment of Iran since the early 20th century means that they should rightly be sceptical of the benefits of cooperation. Kissinger, Brezinski, Hoover, Eden, Chamberlain and others have all had rather a little too much say on Iran.

      The overwhelming majority of muslims are decent, hard working people who reject the interpretation of jihad adopted by extremists. Egypt does not have a nest of vipers within its borders waiting to explode. It is not hugely tribal (unlike Libya and Sudan for instance) as it has a genuinely homogenous identity that predates geographic borders.

      Should another coup d’état in Egypt be supported by the West then we can and should expect the our corrupt western ways (jahilliyah) to be exposed to external jihad. We will deserve it too.

      There have been enough Suhartos, Ibn Sauds, Husseins, Pahlavis, Farouks etc. It is time for government of the people, whatever form that may be.

    • Dave says:


      Your one-sided view of history is lacking in objectivity, which may be due to your accepting Al Jazeera’s view as being the only one, presumably because it tends to confirm your own.

      You seem to think that in moving close to the “ethos” of Hamas (14 above) The Muslim Brotherhood – an organization whose founder idolised the Nazis, and some of whose followers (eg. the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Huseeini in the British Mandate of Palestine ) actually encouraged the Nazis to accelerate the extermination of Jews – is a postive thing. You forget that Is the very same “democratic” Hamas who, following their alleged democratic victory, then went on to murder hundreds of their Fatah brothers in Gaza, and have adamantly refused the holding of any further democratic elections taking place there ever since?

Search Politics