The Corner

The Egyptian Democracy Dilemma

Stan, Jonah, and Dan: Thanks for the kind words and thoughtful replies.

Here’s the fundamental dilemma, as I see it: The vicious repression meted out by Mubarak & Co. has radicalized a hefty chunk of the Egyptian populace and fueled support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the regime has systemically brutalized secular reformers such as Ayman Nour and Saad Ibrahim, thereby stifling the growth of civil society and liberal institutions. We are left with a depressingly primitive political environment, which is frequently cited as proof that Egypt isn’t quite “ready” for free elections.

No doubt, South Korea and Taiwan (to name two examples) were both at a more advanced stage of development in the 1980s — when they became democratic — than Egypt is today. If the Mubarak regime had been a Seoul- or Taipei-style liberal autocracy that gradually opened political space and allowed for the efflorescence of civil society, Egypt would be a much different country. Unfortunately, beyond some market-oriented economic reforms, the dictatorship in Cairo has not been a liberal autocracy. (As Reuel Marc Gerecht observes, the Arab world as a whole has yet to produce an Atatürk-like figure, much to the disappointment of the U.S. State Department.) If Egypt postpones the adoption of genuine democracy until the Brotherhood either vanishes from the scene or transforms into an Arab-Muslim version of the German Christian Democrats, then it won’t be holding free elections for a very long time.

One may argue that such a delay is justified by the potential danger of a Brotherhood-led government. This has been the traditional position of Mubarak and Foggy Bottom (with the exception of a brief interlude under George W. Bush). But by delaying democracy and violently suppressing Islamic fundamentalism, Egypt has also delayed its political maturation, with myriad baleful consequences. Indeed, the country’s toxic mix of tyranny and radical ideology helped catalyze the emergence of al-Qaeda. Gerecht’s basic theory is that, in order to dampen the appeal of jihadism, we must bring both secular and fundamentalist Muslims into the arena of democratic competition, where they can peacefully tackle the thorniest questions of God and man. Until that happens, real progress — real political evolution — will remain elusive.

We should not sugarcoat the Brotherhood’s platform or deny that the organization will greatly complicate Egypt’s transition to democracy. But the unavoidable reality is that Brotherhood members — who, after all, belong to the country’s largest opposition movement — will, as Stan admits, “play a significant role” in shaping the post-Mubarak era. James Traub put it well in his 2008 book, The Freedom Agenda: “The United States does not need to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood (nor does the Brotherhood need to be embraced by the United States). It does, however, need to acknowledge the group’s centrality, its relevance, to Egypt’s political future.”

For more on the Brotherhood — and on the larger topic of Islam and democracy — I can’t recommend highly enough a 2008 Commentary piece (“In Search of Moderate Muslims”) by Josh Muravchik and Charlie Szrom. 


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