Worldview: Egypt is not lost

It's no Iran. For one thing, its uprising is stunningly secular.

Anti-Mubarak signs at a solidarity rally in Bahrain. One reads: "Youth of Egypt, you are creating the dawn of a new Arab future."

There's the tendency in some quarters to sow panic about what will happen in Egypt if Hosni Mubarak steps down.

Last week Glenn Beck stood in front of a chart that portrayed a broad green swath of radical Islamist states extending from Egypt across the entire Middle East to India. (Never mind that India is overwhelmingly Hindu.)

I'm getting e-mail from GOPUSA denouncing "Barrack Carter" as if President Obama had "lost" Egypt the way Jimmy Carter "lost" Iran.

To which I say, "Get a grip!" Egypt is not lost, nor is it Iran. Let's have a reality check.

First the Iran analogies. Iran is a predominantly Shiite Muslim state, where Shiite clerics always played an activist role. The charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from Paris in 1979 and rallied millions of Iranians, which enabled the clerics to hijack the revolution.

Egypt, in contrast, is a Sunni Muslim country where most clerics traditionally support the state.

Yes, the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood is the best organized opposition force (although banned as a political party, its members have run in parliamentary elections). The Brotherhood forsook violence years ago under state pressure, but it does have a worrisome past; it also supports Hamas and opposes the peace treaty with Israel. But it is riven with internal divisions, and has no charismatic leader. Experts say its appeal does not extend beyond 20 percent to 30 percent of the public.

In the past, the Mubarak regime crushed non-Islamist parties so it could use the Brotherhood as a bogeyman and an excuse for strongman rule. If other parties are allowed to flourish in a more open system, the Islamists would remain a minority force.

Moreover, Egypt's army - which will remain the bulwark of the state - won't permit the Brotherhood's role to expand.

And for anyone who has been glued to the TV coverage of the rebels in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the nonreligious nature of the demonstrations was stunning. I was struck by what one Egyptian friend told me emotionally by phone: "These were the first demonstrations I've seen in my lifetime where people are not shouting against something, like America or Israel. They were not anti-anybody. They were just asking for justice and a better life."

"But," my friend went on, "in the past the demonstrators had leaders, and now it is just the people asking for democracy."

This then is a genuine reason for worry about Egypt's future: When and from what circles will its next leaders emerge?

The massive crowds in Tahrir Square - which have kept coming despite last week's violence - have produced no prominent spokesmen. In a situation where the opposition is weak and fragmented, better-organized Islamists could win a plurality in parliament.

There is some nascent political organization behind the demonstrations. The youthful organizers of the protests who worked via Facebook prefer to stay in the background. But a spectrum of opposition figures from a broad range of small parties, plus the Muslim Brotherhood, set up a 100-man shadow parliament after rigged parliamentary elections in November. The Brotherhood was permitted only 15 percent of the seats.

That group, in turn, appointed a steering committee of 10, including the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who might emerge as a temporary leader. These men could be part of the process leading to free elections next fall. But ElBaradei does not appear to have the appeal of a presidential candidate.

The Obama administration has been working behind the scenes to encourage a transitional government that would draw in members of the opposition. Such a government would function until elections in September and give time for new opposition parties to organize - and new leaders to appear.

The shape of the transition remains murky as Mubarak ponders his future. But one thing is clear: The Egyptian army would play a major stabilizing role, with public approval.

Proposals on how to manage the transition, from various opposition groups, are zipping around the Internet; I've been receiving translations from Cairo. They include names of distinguished Egyptians who might take part in a transition team: most are secular intellectuals and technocrats, such as Nobel Prize-winning scientist Ahmed Zewail and Dr. Gawdat el-Malt, president of the Central Auditing Organization, as well as politicians like Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League.

These proposals remind us that there are many talented Egyptians who, given the chance, could emerge into leadership roles.

So when people talk about Egypt being "lost," I respond that Egyptians are just finding themselves. Theirs is a talented population that had given up on the future of its country. Shahira Amin, a noted presenter on state-owned Nile TV, who quit last week when the channel refused to show state-sponsored violence, put it well: "I thought Egypt was a mountain that could not be moved. These young people did what my generation couldn't do."

A new Egyptian government may be fragmented; its leadership may be weak. It may not be as responsive to U.S. interests as an autocrat would be. But the army - which has strong U.S. ties - is hardly likely to break the peace treaty with Israel.

This revolution is "made in Egypt," it's not Islamist, and the United States can't stop it. The wisest U.S. course, which the Obama team is now pursuing, is to help Egyptians organize an orderly transition and build up their political system - into something better than the region has seen.

E-mail Trudy Rubin at