Revolution in Cairo

“Revolution in Cairo” is a partnership of PBS Frontline and GlobalPost and is set to air on Tuesday, Feb. 22nd at 9 pm.

CAIRO — In the early morning, we headed for the airport leaving behind a country that has succeeded in transforming itself and changing the political landscape of the Middle East.

Suddenly, anything seems possible. The most populous nation of the Arab world has shaken off a dictator and raised the hopes of so many neighboring countries living under tyranny.

In the hotel room before heading for the airport, there were reports on CNN of Iranian demonstrations picking up and more protests in Algeria and continuing unrest in Jordan. It was a spark from Tunisia that ignited a fire in Egypt.

And whether it will spread through the region is anyone’s guess.

But this much seems certain: The revolution in Egypt has profoundly challenged American foreign policy in the Middle East. It has forced the State Department and the White House and hopefully the American people to reflect on a hypocrisy that has long lied at the heart of our approach to the region. That is, for decades the

US has supported corrupt, brutal regimes like that of Hosni Mubarak, while simultaneously calling for democracy.

Now a popular cry for democracy has won out over a self-serving play for stability, and that shift in U.S.-Egypt relations will inevitably present extraordinary challenges for American crafters of foreign policy. It’s time for them to go back to the drawing board.
After almost two weeks of reporting the historic events in Egypt, we leave here believing there is an opening to talk with new players in Egypt and find a new way to navigate the path forward.

There are new political forces that have emerged from Egypt’s youth who will need support and guidance as they take shape. And there is the Muslim Brotherhood, a sleeping giant of a social movement in Egypt, that is relatively moderate compared to militant Islamists.

We’ve spent most of our two weeks here reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood, trying to assess the impact it could have on the new Egypt.

We’ve talked with the old guard of the Muslim Brotherhood, a social and political movement that was banned under Mubarak and forced to operate largely in the shadows. That old guard hesitated to join the demonstrators, dismissing the protests of the young people connected by Twitter as headed nowhere. And we talked to the youth movement within the Muslim Brotherhood that pulled the organization forward to join in the demonstrations after they got rolling in a big way. The Brotherhood was late to the party, but eventually played a quietly effective role in bringing their hundreds of thousands of followers to the square and organizing checkpoints to keep the regime’s thugs from trying to trigger violence.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate movement that seeks to shape Egypt as an Islamic society. For years, Mubarak tried to paint them as Islamic radicals, intentionally trying to blur very clear lines between the Brotherhood and violent extremists such as Al Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

The reality is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt rejected violence decades ago and is loathed by the likes of Al Qaeda. The Brotherhood has actively sought to play a role in civil society in Egypt with some 1400 different organizations that establish schools, health clinics and counseling services for poorer sectors of Egypt that were neglected by the regime. When invited, the banned party tried to field independent candidates in elections, even though they knew the vote was ultimately rigged by the regime. In 2005, they succeeded in taking 88 seats, or about 20 percent of parliament. Then in the following years, the regime cracked down on their members and seized the assets of wealthy donors who fund them and blunted their attempt to play a prominent role in parliament.

We spoke to many analysts who believe the U.S. now has a chance to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood. Some like, Shadi Hamid, an Egyptian-American expert on the Brotherhood at the Brookings Institution, believe they should seize the opportunity. It’s a policy question that will be hotly debated in the coming weeks and months in Washington and in Cairo and an issue we will explore in the partnership with FRONTLINE and GlobalPost scheduled for broadcast on Feb. 22.