Politics & Policy

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.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean we should sugarcoat the EMB’s record or ignore the hair-raising comments made by many of its senior members. No question, the organization is filled with religious obscurantists who have espoused anti-Semitism and endorsed murderous attacks against both Israeli civilians and U.S. troops in Iraq. While the EMB formally abandoned violence a long time ago, it also spawned Hamas — which is technically the Palestinian branch of the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood — and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), a terrorist outfit that later merged with al-Qaeda. For that matter, Osama bin Laden’s chief deputy, the Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahiri, was originally a Brotherhood member, before leaving to create EIJ. The type of Islamic society championed by top EMB officials is anathema to Western values of liberty and equality. Those who accuse the Brothers of being theocrats-in-waiting can easily summon a raft of evidence to buttress their case.

And yet, we must appreciate that the EMB has been evolving. Just ask New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright — author of The Looming Tower, a Pulitzer-winning history of al-Qaeda — who once studied and taught at the American University in Cairo. “The Brotherhood in Egypt has made a decision that, in general, they agree with democratic politics,” he told NPR last week. This decision has prompted ferocious criticism from Zawahiri and bin Laden, who regard the Brothers as traitors to Islam. At the present juncture, Wright said, the EMB is deeply “fractured.” Its ranks include “hardliners,” “moderates,” and “progressives who want to be much more a part of the modern world.” The group is far from a homogeneous bloc.

George Washington University political scientist Marc Lynch made this same point in a thoughtful 2008 report. “The Brotherhood today is perhaps best understood as an internally divided organization, with the balance of power between politically oriented pragmatists and religiously oriented conservatives very much in flux,” he wrote. “The MB’s still dominant moderate stance is engendering impatience among the ranks, with analysts as well as Brotherhood leaders and activists warning of the growing difficulty of persuading young activists of the virtues of self-restraint. A sensible policy approach would be to try to create the conditions in which the pragmatists could win these internal battles — by reducing regime repression, recognizing and rewarding positive developments, and pushing to open up the public sphere for discussion and debate that might increase the organization’s transparency.”

As Lynch indicated, the EMB remains relatively opaque, thereby adding to Egyptian and Western distrust of its actual motives. But in the sunlight of democratic competition, the Brotherhood will be forced to clarify its stance on various hot-button questions. For example: What is the proper status of women in Egyptian society? How about religious minorities, such as the Coptic Christians? And should Cairo preserve formal relations with Jerusalem? As Wright told NPR, those three issues — women, minorities, and Israel — will go a long way toward determining the level of EMB sway in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Over the past decade, the Brotherhood has often seemed schizophrenic. In 2004, it unveiled a “reform initiative” that championed democratic pluralism, constitutional government, and free elections — while still calling for Sharia law. A year later, EMB candidates (running as independents) captured roughly 20 percent of all seats in the Egyptian national assembly, despite violent harassment at the polls. Optimistic Westerners said the Brotherhood had become an authentic democratic organization with which America should pursue greater engagement. In 2007, however, the EMB released a draft of its first-ever policy platform — and the skeptics claimed vindication. The platform rejected the right of women or Coptic Christians to serve as Egyptian president. It also advocated the formation of a clerical council that would issue binding judgments on legislation related to Sharia.

“This proposal,” wrote journalist James Traub in his 2008 book, The Freedom Agenda, “which had never before appeared in Brotherhood policy documents, was quickly seized on as proof that the group favored Iranian-style theocracy.” The platform brouhaha also sparked a massive uproar within the Brotherhood itself, thereby highlighting its internal schisms. (Several key “moderate” EMB officials had been in jail when the policy blueprint was formulated.) Ottaway insists that at least some EMB leaders — people she knows personally — are genuinely committed to representative government, and she argues that entering the arena of pluralist democracy would have “a moderating effect” on the organization as a whole.

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.

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