Today at the Egyptian protests in London there were two separate and hostile protests that indicate the issues facing a post-Mubarak Egypt; one was secular and pro-democratic in its aims while the other was religious and supportive of a pan-Islamic caliphate.
It is looking increasingly likely that the dictatorial reign of President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak is to come to an end in the coming days. While his resignation has not yet been confirmed, the mass protests in the streets are making his position increasingly untenable. Thoughts will immediately turn to what will replace the old dictator.
Today opposite the Egyptian Embassy in South Street Egyptians, British Egyptians and sympathisers from across the world gathered outside the Egyptian embassy for what was a largely secular protest. Around 3-400 people were there calling on the Mubarak regime to go and for free and fair elections. There were signs calling for Christians and Muslims to rise up in unity, men and women mixed freely and there were very few headscarves to be seen.
Around the corner on South Audley Street a very different kind of protest was going on. Around 400 men and women were holding a protest calling for Mubarak to step down and advocating an Islamic Caliphate system of governance. The talks were pan-Islamic rather than specific to Egypt and they were organised predominantly by the extremist group Hizbut-Tahrir. Men and women were separated, and the majority of people from both sexes were dressed in traditionally Islamic dress.
Taji Mustafa, a spokesman for the Hizbut-Tahrir organised event, explained to me that he was in favour of a system of government based on the Islamic caliphates.
“The Americans and the British regime have had no problems, they are such hypocrites, they have had no problem for 30 years backing him [Mubarak] and today suddenly when they see this amazing mood amongst the people they are jumping on the bandwagon. The people will not be cheated. Election of ruler, guaranteed employment, unity- the caliphate is the only system that can actually guarantee these aspirations.”
The two protests were actively hostile to one another. One speaker at the first event said “we want to tell the world that this not an Islamic revolution, it is a people’s revolution” in an obvious jab at the events round the corner and at the end of the Hizbut-Tahrir event stewards formed a line to stop people from going down South Street.
I asked Rafik Bedair, one of the organisers for the secular event, about Hizbut-Tahrir.
“I don’t know too much about them but we are not affiliated to them. I think most governments would classify them as an extremist Islamic group who do not recognise nation-states. They do not accept that we are here in support of Egypt. They have a completely different agenda and we are unrelated to them. We don’t want people to think that these are the people in support of Egypt.”
This situation illustrates the issues that face Egypt in a post-Mubarak world in which the revolution could go two ways. Much of the media coverage has claimed that the protests in North Africa are similar to the European revolutions of 1848 in which lower and middle class fury at illiberalism and the cost of living in France eventually spread and affected most of the countries on the continent.
That is to assume that the result will be greater push towards liberalism and democracy but this is far from certain. In 1917 what was an initial popular movement from the Russian people eventually became high jacked by the Bolshevik Party, who went on to create a state more dictatorial than the one they inherited.
While the protests in Egypt have not had an extremist Islamic element to date, it is worth remembering that the Iranian revolution of 1979 was initially not purely Islamic and that there were vicious conflicts between the religious groups and the leftist groups after the Shah was overthrown.
It is widely believed that is free and fair elections were in place in Egypt then the Muslim Brotherhood, who boycotted the last elections, could be the biggest party. While they are somewhat of an unknown entity in political terms, their former ideologue Sayyid Qutb was an arch-enemy of the West and his writings have affected the thinking of many including Osama Bin Laden.
The party itself has often been more reformist than Qutb’s hardcore line, and Bedair was keen to stress that he would accept the result if they were to win power.
“My personal opinion is they have a lot of popularity in Egypt. As long as it happens within a framework that guarantees that the people make the choice [it is ok]. The government tries to paint them as very, very extreme group when really they aren’t. You can agree or disagree with their agenda but they are a non-violent group,” he said.
In the weeks after Mubarak goes there will be a scramble for the levers of power in Egypt and it is far from clear that the current forces pushing the revolution will be the one that wins out. While there has been cooperation from all groups so far, it is unclear how this will play out once there is no longer a figure of hatred to unify around.While those in favour of a secular constitution appear to have the upper hand, the emergence of groups like Hizbut-Tahrir in the Egyptian struggle must be a cause for concern.
If and when Mubarak leaves office the battle for the future of Egypt will only just be beginning.