Egypt speaks but not with one voice

The absence of Islamists at the forefront of the protests in Egypt may have helped compel those who had avoided engaging in politics to participate.

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Anxieties about Islamist movements in the Arab world have been at the forefront of western policies in the region for years. The United States, in particular, has supported the government of the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in part because his leadership was understood as a bulwark against Islamist influence. But as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez in protest against Egypt's government, their slogans were not sectarian. Islamist groups appear to have little to do with the unprecedented demonstrations in Egypt's streets.

"What's different about this is it's not the Muslim Brotherhood," Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution told The National on Friday. While members of the Brotherhood, the largest and most powerful of Egypt's opposition groups, have joined the demonstrations, they are certainly not steering them. Several Salafist organisations have actually refused to participate in the protests. Many Egyptian Christians, however, joined thousands of Muslims leaving Friday prayers to unify the demonstrations. As one Coptic priest in Cairo commented: "People are not moved by religion but by the absence of social justice."

The absence of Islamists at the forefront of the protests may have helped compel those who had avoided engaging in Egyptian politics to participate now. As Emad Gad, an analyst at the government-funded Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, explained, "professional and working class Egyptians are attracted to the current wave of protests precisely because it is an alternative to these other groups".

The diverse composition of the demonstrations on Egypt's streets contradicts Mr Mubarak's description of the protests as "a bigger plot to shake the stability and destroy legitimacy". In the absence of a more inclusive political system, disparate elements of Egyptian society have come together to demand reform.

How Mr Mubarak and his international backers will ultimately respond to calls for change remains unclear. The president dismissed his cabinet and vowed to address unemployment; the numbers of Egyptians on Cairo's streets on Saturday made clear that this would not suffice. Washington has also struggled to respond. As the recipient of $1.3 billion in annual military aid, Egypt remains one of the United States' most important allies in the Middle East. But as the US president Barack Obama noted on Friday, it is the Egyptian people who "want a future that befits the heirs to a great and ancient civilisation". As that civilisation asserts itself today, it is proving to be far more diverse and dynamic than many believed it to be.