Egypt, Without Illusions
Democratization will be a messy and turbulent process, but fears of a radical Islamist takeover are overblown.


What is the best possible outcome in Egypt? Short term, the ideal scenario is a nonviolent, military-brokered transition led by a reformist government that will spearhead major constitutional changes, uphold the rule of law, nurture liberal institutions, promote democratic pluralism, safeguard basic freedoms, and maintain the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

But when exactly should the country hold fresh elections? That’s where things get trickier.

Critics of the Bush “freedom agenda” were — are — fond of saying that “democracy is more than just elections.” No doubt. Who ever suggested otherwise? Without adequate institutional and cultural underpinnings, democracy can rapidly deteriorate into soft (or rigid) authoritarianism. We should not be idealistically dismissive of the profound challenges of moving from dictatorship to representative government. Holding a free election tomorrow would not transform Egypt into New Zealand. The process of liberalization will unfold over many years, with plenty of setbacks along the way.

Had Hosni Mubarak been a different sort of autocrat — one who allowed for greater political and socioeconomic development — Egypt would be better positioned to make the leap toward democratic rule. Alas, the octogenarian despot chose to brutalize and imprison secular human-rights activists rather than let them foster civil society. This repression, along with a bevy of social and religious factors, helped the outlawed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (EMB) — a Sunni Islamist group founded in 1928 — become the country’s biggest opposition movement.

Now we are confronting the same fears that Cairo shrewdly manipulated for decades. What if the Egyptian uprising triggers a chaotic chain reaction? What if the EMB seizes control? Won’t it turn Egypt into an Islamic theocracy and launch hostile actions against Israel? Won’t it disrupt trade flows — including oil traffic — through the strategically vital Suez Canal? In other words, aren’t free elections just too risky?

These are the concerns that traditionally insulated Mubarak from serious U.S. pressure to reform. They are wholly legitimate. But just as we should avoid Pollyannaish naivety about the EMB, we should also avoid treating the group as an all-powerful monolith that will inevitably strangle Egyptian democracy in the cradle.

Here’s the discomfiting but inescapable reality: EMB members represent a sizable constituency, and they will exert substantial influence during the post-Mubarak transition. Neither the 83-year-old organization nor its grassroots followers can be airbrushed from the Egyptian political landscape. “The Muslim Brotherhood is an important player in Egypt, and it is going to remain an important player,” says Marina Ottaway, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). Yet Ottaway is quick to add that the EMB lacks both the popularity and the charismatic leadership necessary to establish an Iranian-style religious state. As anthropologist and regional expert Scott Atran has emphasized, the group does not command anything close to “mass support.” Its current prominence is largely a result of persistent government efforts to bludgeon the secular and liberal opposition.

CEIP vice president Thomas Carothers believes there is ample reason to hope that Egypt might follow the path, not of Iran, but of Indonesia — the most populous Muslim country on earth — which began its successful democratic transition in 1998. Writing in the online version of The New Republic, Carothers argues that “
Egypt is not ripe for a radical Islamist revolution.” Islam scholar Reuel Marc Gerecht — a former CIA officer and author of an upcoming book on Middle East democracy — agrees: “What we are likely to see in Egypt,” he predicts in the New York Times, “is not a repeat of Iran, where fundamentalists took undisputed power, but a repeat of Iraq, where Sunni religious parties did well initially but started to fade, divide and evolve as the powerful Sunni preference for laymen of no particular religious distinction comes to the foreground.

Indeed, the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam will militate against the imposition of a clerical regime in Cairo. Egyptian society has not produced a Khomeini-like figure, nor should we expect it to, given the nature of Sunni doctrine and tradition. Despite being “the mother ship of Sunni fundamentalism,” Gerecht notes, the EMB “
has always had a tense relationship with Al Azhar, the great Sunni seminary of Cairo.” When Americans imagine the “Egyptian Muslim Brothers,” they may picture a bunch of bearded clergymen delivering fanatical sermons. Yet as Reuters correspondent Samia Nakhoul observes, the group boasts “an overwhelmingly lay leadership of professionals with modern educations — engineers, doctors, lawyers, academics and teachers.”