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. 

Most Popular


If Amy Wax Is Wrong, Let’s See the Data

Regarding the kerfuffle Jason Richwine addressed here earlier, the economist Glenn Loury has posted an impassioned plea to his Facebook page. Loury, you may recall, hosts the video blog where Wax made her controversial claim that black students at Penn Law School rarely graduate in the top half of the ... Read More
Politics & Policy

San Francisco Bans Fur Sales

San Francisco has banned the sale of fur. From the CBS-SF story: San Francisco has become the first major U.S. city to ban the sale of fur clothing and products. Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a measure that prohibits the sale of fur clothes, accessories, even souvenirs in stores and ... Read More

For the First Time in Weeks, Relief Sweeps over Austin

Making the click-through worthwhile: The Austin bomber is done in by one of his own devices; some new numbers suggest that a small but significant portion of Trump voters are tiring of the chaos and aren’t showing up to support other Republicans in 2018; and the mixed news for conservatives coming out of the ... Read More

The Baleful Effect of #MeToo on Campus

Remember the series of hurricanes that pounded the Caribbean last summer? Something like that has been occurring on college campuses, as they're hit by one destructive mania after another: diversity, Title IX, anti-speech protests. Now it's the #MeToo Movement. In this Martin Center article, British academic ... Read More
Politics & Policy

A Time for Choosing

This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference was controversial. Invitations to European nationalist populists such as Nigel Farage and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (the niece of Marine Le Pen) caused many longtime conservatives to question whether they still belong to the conservative movement. Vocal critics ... Read More