DURING the last two years Egypt's Muslim militants have mounted an unprecedented onslaught, by both violent and legal means, with the intention of forcing the regime of President Hosni Mubarak to concede to their demands for the Islamization of Egyptian society.
The government's response so far has been to wage war on the armed militants while seeking accommodation with the less militant Muslim Brotherhood. This struggle is taking place against a deepening social, political, and economic crisis.
The militants have behaved with total disregard for human life, bombing popular cafes and crowded streets. The authorities have responded by taking hostages of relatives of those wanted for interrogation and torturing them, or gunning down members of the Islamist gangs. The security forces have acted without any regard for the moral or legal consequences of their actions and without any respect for constitutional constraints on their powers. Despite a year of increasingly brutal repression, especially in
the villages of Upper Egypt, the authorities have been unable to suppress the armed Islamists.
This is not an indication of the popularity of these groups. Their support base in the country is very limited. Rather it reflects the lack of governmental will to tackle the underlying problems of Egyptian society, or even to develop a strategic perspective or adequate policy to counter the growing malaise that afflicts a political system grown sluggish through self-serving nepotism and corruption.
Although Egypt is officially a multiparty state, it has been ruled for the last 17 years by a single party. There is virtually no separation between state structures and the ruling party, which maintains control of the media as well as running all elections.
In return for bestowing legitimacy on what is, in effect, a one-party system, other interest groups, including the opposition parties, are given certain privileges. They are allowed to publish a limited number of weekly papers, and a small number of seats in parliament are allotted to them.
During the 1970s the late President Anwar Sadat, architect of this democratic facade, allowed the Islamic groups three privileged areas of activity that they have turned into platforms for their Islamization policies. They were allowed to use the extensive network of neighborhood mosques to spread their message. They were given easy access to state media, something denied to the secular liberal opposition. They were also permitted to influence the choice of textbooks for schools and institutions of educa tion. From these positions of influence, the Islamists have been able to spread their political message to all parts of Egyptian society.
The Algerians' near-seizure of power by democratic means has troubled Arab capitals. Arab leaders have drawn the wrong conclusions from these events and held democracy responsible for the situation, rather than seeing it as a response to 25 years of despotic, one-party rule.
In Egypt, the fear of the Algerian specter has led to a wave of legislation tightening the margins of democracy under the pretense of combating terrorism. In effect, this wide-ranging legislation restricts the activities of all political tendencies and thus bestows on the Islamic opposition a certain legitimacy and allows it to forge alliances with other political groupings to combat these undemocratic laws. Because of the better organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, developed through years of undergro und activity, many of these broad political alliances have fallen under the sway of the Brotherhood and accept its leadership.
PRESIDENT Mubarak is a military man, and so far the military has stood solidly behind him. Yet, there are those who hanker after a military man with links to the fundamentalists who can effect a peaceful transition to an Islamic state.
Some have heralded the Jordanian compromise with its own Muslim Brotherhood as the way forward. Yet this raises the question of whether the Muslim Brotherhood can really contain the worsening situation while compromising with the existing regime.
In Jordan, the Brotherhood grew under the patronage of the royal family. In Egypt they developed in opposition to the established political order.
As bleak as the future appears, there is still time for the regime to adopt the only real option. The government must risk a genuine democratization of Egyptian society, permitting the free working of opposition parties and the setting up of non-governmental organizations. These can then work to form a broad front opposed to institutional corruption and official abuse of power, while working to mobilize against the religious bigotry and arbitrary terrorism of Islamic political groups.
What is needed is the rooting out of fundamentalists from their positions of privilege. It requires a radical revision of the education curriculum and a democratization of the media, removing it from the immediate control of the ruling party and opening it out to a broad spectrum of political and cultural tendencies. Failure to do this will leave Egypt with an impossible alternative: leaving the situation remain as it is.