Are We Serious About A Democratic Egypt?

EGYPT/MUSLIMBROTHERHOODVoicing the fear of political Islam currently gripping much of the American commentariat, Charles Krauthammer writes that the U.S.’s “paramount moral and strategic interest in Egypt is real democracy in which power does not devolve to those who believe in one man, one vote, one time”:

That would be Egypt’s fate should the Muslim Brotherhood prevail. That was the fate of Gaza, now under the brutal thumb of Hamas, a Palestinian wing (see Article 2 of Hamas’s founding covenant) of the Muslim Brotherhood.

We are told by sage Western analysts not to worry about the Brotherhood because it probably commands only about 30 percent of the vote. This is reassurance? In a country where the secular democratic opposition is weak and fractured after decades of persecution, any Islamist party commanding a third of the vote rules the country.

I agree that U.S. has an interest in helping the Egyptians create a “real democracy,” which is more than just elections but a working, durable set of institutions and procedures. It seems obvious, however, that stating at the outset of such a process that one of our goals is to prevent a particular disfavored group from winning political power is a great way not to achieve that.

While it’s true that Hamas considers itself the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (this is how it defined itself in the 1970’s when Israel quietly supported it, in an attempt to draw support away from the secular nationalist Fatah) it’s lazy at this point to simply conflate the two movements, as their separate experiences and evolution over the last three decades have diverged significantly. (Conor Friedersdorf took a deeper look at this yesterday.)

As for whether Gaza today provides a good example of what Egypt would look like under the Muslim Brotherhood, I suppose if the U.S. immediately responded to a Brotherhood electoral victory by refusing to deal with the new government, then supported a failed coup attempt, and then placed the entire country under a blockade while periodically invading and bombing it, then yes, Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood might come to look like Gaza under Hamas.

I think a better example of how the Muslim Brotherhood might govern, as I noted previously, can be found in Iraq, where Sunni and Shia Islamist parties dominate. The new Iraq still has enormous problems, but as far as I can tell, its various Islamist governors and parliamentarians clamoring for the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate isn’t one.

In a new Foreign Affairs piece analyzing the evolution of the Brotherhood, Emory University’s Carrie Rosefsky Wickham writes:

Those who emphasize the risk of “Islamic tyranny” aptly note that the Muslim Brotherhood originated as an anti-system group dedicated to the establishment of sharia rule; committed acts of violence against its opponents in the pre-1952 era; and continues to use anti-Western, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric. But portraying the Brotherhood as eager and able to seize power and impose its version of sharia on an unwilling citizenry is a caricature that exaggerates certain features of the Brotherhood while ignoring others, and underestimates the extent to which the group has changed over time.

Wickham concludes, “The Brotherhood has demonstrated that it is capable of evolving over time, and the best way to strengthen its democratic commitments is to include it in the political process, making sure there are checks and balances in place to ensure that no group can monopolize state power and that all citizens are guaranteed certain freedoms under the law”:

In the foreign policy domain, the Brotherhood rails against “U.S. and Zionist domination,” demands the recognition of Palestinian rights, and may one day seek to revise the terms of Egypt’s relationship with Israel through constitutional channels. The Brotherhood will likely never be as supportive of U.S. and Israeli interests in the region as Mubarak was. Yet here too, the best way for the United States to minimize the risk associated with the likely increase in its power is to encourage and reward judiciousness and pragmatism. With a track record of nearly 30 years of responsible behavior (if not rhetoric) and a strong base of support, the Muslim Brotherhood has earned a place at the table in the post-Mubarak era. No democratic transition can succeed without it.

We obviously shouldn’t be sanguine about what the Muslim Brotherhood represent. These are not liberals in disguise. They hold a lot of views that I, and I think many Egyptians, find abhorrent. But so does Mike Huckabee. The important thing is having processes in place that encourage moderation and coalition-building, thereby preventing extreme religious conservatives from implementing their crazier ideas. But the bottom line is that a truly democratic Egypt, if and when it arrives, will make choices and include actors that the U.S. doesn’t like. We should start getting used to that idea.