The Spectacle Blog

Democracy and Islam in Egypt

By on 2.8.11 | 3:01PM

Reuel Marc Gerecht has been working on a book about the increasing enthusiasm for democracy in the Muslim world, so his thoughts on current events in Egypt could not be more timely. It's worth excerpting at length what he's been writing lately, so I'll put the rest of this below the fold.

In a New York Times op-ed on Sunday, Gerecht addressed some of the issues that we've been debating in this space in recent weeks:

The Egyptian revolt against President Hosni Mubarak and his regime has caused many in the West to foresee a calamitous, unstoppable rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother ship of Sunni fundamentalism. The Brotherhood is frightening. Prominent members have sanctified suicide-bombing against Israeli women and children, espoused the vilest anti-Semitism and affirmed the holiness of killing those who would slight the Prophet Muhammad.

But the Brotherhood, like everyone else, is evolving. It would be a serious error to believe that it has not sincerely wrestled with the seductive challenge of democracy, with the fact that the Egyptian faithful like the idea of voting for their leaders...

The Brotherhood is trying to come to terms with the idea of hurriya, "freedom." In the past, for the Muslim devout, hurriya had denoted the freedom of a believer to worship God; for the Arab nationalist, the word was the battle cry against European imperialism. Today, in Egypt and elsewhere, hurriya cannot be understood without reference to free men and women voting. The Brothers are trying to figure out how to integrate two civilizations and thereby revive their own. This evolution isn't pretty. But it is real...

Although Hosni Mubarak has done his best to suck the life out of Egyptian society, the shadows of once great parties, like the Wafds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and nearly forgotten forces like the Liberal Constitutionalist Party will try to resurrect themselves in fairly short order. Ayman Nour and his liberal Ghad Party are already established.

Once President Mubarak is gone, and if his minions don't try to maintain the military dictatorship, a quick transition to democracy is likely to produce a plethora of parties, with a few in position to form a coalition.

The Brotherhood will undoubtedly be one of the big players, but it will have to compete for votes...

What we are likely to see in Egypt 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. Sunni Islam has no clerical hierarchy of the holy - it's tailor-made for nasty arguments among men who dispute one another's authority to know the righteous path. If the Brotherhood can be corralled by a democratic system, the global effect may not be insignificant.

In the current Weekly Standard, Gerecht covers some of the same ground, and expands on the argument that the US should be pushing harder for free elections:

What ought to be clear-but obviously isn't, given the considerable Western trepidation that has greeted this rebellion, especially on the American right and in Israel-is that the West should want this revolution to continue, even if it allows the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood much greater influence.

In so many ways, Egypt, like all Arab states, is an unrelentingly immature society, where conspiracy replaces reason, and the worst hatreds-especially anti-Semitism-are accepted without the slightest objection. Dinner parties with the Egyptian elite-let alone Muslim Brothers-can be so conspiracy-afflicted as to make Noam Chomsky look nice, introspective, and analytically evenhanded. This is what we can always expect from dictatorial societies. But there is an antidote.

Democracy -- understood as a culture of respect for legitimate authority, free media, and individual freedom to work and to organize and assemble, not just the regular holding of elections-introduces competition into every corner of society. It creates an unending ethical battle between opposing sides...

The Brotherhood will have to survive constant competition from Egypt's liberals and secular nationalists, who have an older history in the country than the Islamists. They will have to survive the competition of devout Muslims who bristle at the Brotherhood's heavy-handedness. We should not assume that devout Muslims will be less subject to faction than their secular brethren. It's possible that the Muslim Brotherhood could pull off a military coup, but it seems unlikely. Their paramilitary forces are pathetic compared with the Egyptian Army, which has so far not shown itself, even in the lower ranks, to be blindly enamored of the Brotherhood. The organization would likely confront an enormous social, and quite possibly a military, backlash if it attempted to abort free elections once they got going.

The key here is elections soon-September is way too late. Periodic elections are what most powerfully builds democratic institutions and culture. As the French scholar Olivier Roy has written, "If we had to wait for everyone to become a democrat before creating democracy, France would still be a monarchy." It's now plain that Mubarak's regime has no intention of transferring power beyond his inner circle. It's becoming increasingly clear that the senior ranks of the military are siding with Mubarak in his ever more violent attempts to squash the protests. For better or worse, what's happening in Egypt will continue to reverberate throughout the region. If Washington and Jerusalem are dreading an empowered Muslim Brotherhood, a vicious clampdown on the democratic rebellion will surely make the next irruption much more radical and violent.

A democratizing Egypt could change the face of the Middle East. Political evolution could start. No doubt the American and Israeli embrace of Mubarak's detested dictatorship will carry a price, perhaps a stiff price, in a democratic Egypt. It is the cost of our having sought to build stability on an authoritarian illusion. But for Mubarak's regime, or a military successor, to hold on would be a catastrophe for the United States. All of the cancers of the region-especially Islamic militancy-would get worse.

Both of those pieces should be read in full by anyone trying to seriously grapple with what's going on in Egypt. The nightmare scenario is that the Egyptian Brotherhood mimicks their Palestinian franchise, Hamas, and uses an electoral victory as an occassion to kill their competitors and never call another election. The risk of that may be exaggerated, but it's not inconceivable, and policymakers must act to avoid it. But allowing Mubarak or his cadre to maintain authoritarian rule is an even more dangerous course of action, because it makes the nightmare scenario much more likely to happen later.

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