Next leaders will be telling

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 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 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. These men could be part of the process leading to free elections next fall.

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

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.

The wisest U.S. course, which the Obama team is pursuing, is to help Egyptians organize an orderly transition and build up their political system - into something better than the region has seen.

Contact Rubin, a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer, at trubin@phillynews.com.