The Brotherhood appears conscious of its PR problem. Earlier this month, the group announced that it would not be fielding a candidate in the next Egyptian presidential election. Wright called this a “remarkable” and prudent decision aimed at quelling foreign anxiety. The Brothers “recognize that the West is terrified of seeing Egypt turn into an Islamist state,” and they also recognize that Cairo has long used the specter of a Brotherhood-dominated government to frighten American diplomats.
Many experts — including Wright, Ottaway, and CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank — estimate that the ceiling for EMB support in a free parliamentary election would be around 30 percent. In other words, says Ottaway, even if the Brothers maximized their electoral potential, they would “have to compromise with everyone else.” Moreover, given its various fissures, the organization “could well succumb to internal division if there really were a political opening for other groups in Egypt,” as Atran has written. Such a rupture would further blunt the influence of EMB radicals.
The group’s ultimate intentions remain a matter of dispute, as the 2007 platform controversy illustrated. “We want a civil state, based on Islamic principles,” Brotherhood spokesman Essam el-Erian recently told the BBC. “A democratic state, with a parliamentary system, with freedom to form parties, press freedom, and an independent and fair judiciary.” Perhaps Erian — a high-profile member of the EMB’s “reformist” wing — was camouflaging the true Brotherhood agenda. But if the group pledges its fidelity to the constitutional order and continues to abjure violence, it cannot reasonably be excluded from national politics. As Brookings Institution scholar Shadi Hamid has stressed, an Egyptian democracy that bans EMB participation “is unlikely to be seen as much more legitimate than the autocracy that came before it.”
Here’s another inconvenient truth: Any Egyptian government that reflects popular sentiment and widely held social mores is bound to have some type of Islamic character, regardless of whether it includes the Brotherhood. Consider the results of a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, which has been drawing attention since the anti-Mubarak protests erupted. Last spring, when the poll was conducted, a whopping 85 percent of all Egyptian Muslims described Islam as a positive influence on their national politics. Meanwhile, a staggering 84 percent of Egyptian Muslims said that those who leave Islam should receive capital punishment; 82 percent said that adulterers should be stoned; 77 percent said that theft and robbery should be punished with whippings and hand-cutting; 54 percent voiced support for gender segregation in the workplace; and 49 percent expressed a favorable view of Hamas.
In a separate 2010 poll conducted by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, a plurality (37 percent) of all Egyptians said that their government “should base its decisions mostly on what is best for Muslims,” rather than what is best for their country (34 percent) or best for Arabs (24 percent). Nearly a third (31 percent) of all Egyptians selected “Muslim” as their “most important identity,” compared with 30 percent who picked “Arab” and 37 percent who chose to identify primarily as Egyptian citizens. Fully half of all Egyptians said that when watching “a movie or a program about the Jewish Holocaust,” they “resent that it brings sympathy toward Israel and Jews at the expense of Palestinians and Arabs.”
Some of these numbers are quite disturbing. On the other hand, 59 percent of Egyptian Muslims told Pew that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.” When pondering the long-run impact of Egyptian democratization, we should ask ourselves: What are the conditions most likely to push Muslims toward social and political moderation? What are the conditions most likely to discourage angry young men from becoming holy warriors? What are the conditions most likely to diminish the attraction of radical ideology?
The answer to these questions cannot be “more repression and autocracy.” Real democracy and civil society will give Egyptian liberals the political space they need to build a grassroots support network and cultivate candidates with broad national appeal. Most of the demonstrators thronging Tahrir Square “are not Islamists, but they don’t have proper leaders at this point,” Wright told NPR. If the secular opposition can coalesce around basic principles, rally behind strong leaders, and sink roots among the general population, “then I think that we will see an actual democracy in Egypt in which the Muslim Brothers play a part, but not a decisive one.”
Free elections should not be rushed, but neither should they be postponed indefinitely. The cross-pollination and reciprocity of democratic competition will serve to modernize Egyptian politics and dampen the allure of Islamist extremism. To be sure, democracy won’t magically transform the EMB into an Arab-Muslim equivalent of the German Christian Democrats, but it will incentivize the Brotherhood to court secular and non-fundamentalist voters. If this exacerbates the group’s philosophical cleavages and causes it to splinter, so much the better.
As Gerecht has been arguing for years, significant political maturation — in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East — will be impossible without a robust democratic debate over God, man, and social justice. The largest Arab country now has an unprecedented opportunity to launch such a debate. Its success or failure will reverberate across the region, and indeed the world.
— Duncan Currie is deputy managing editor of National Review Online.