Beware the Islamists

Nobody wants Egypt’s first democratic elections to be its last.

Muslim Brotherhood Leadership Council in Egypt 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Muslim Brotherhood Leadership Council in Egypt 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
The White House is calling for an “immediate” transition to democratic representation in Egypt. “Ordinary transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now,” US President Barack Obama told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak by phone Tuesday. And as if the president’s message was not clear enough, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs added, “Now means yesterday.”
Not only must transition to democracy be quick, but it must include “a whole host of non-secular actors,” added Gibbs.
And though the White House spokesman did not specify, the US administration apparently does not “rule out engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood as part of an orderly process,” according to sources quoted by The New York Times.
There are a number of profound flaws to this “hurry up and democratize” approach, perhaps the most obvious being historical precedent. If Hamas’s victory in 2006’s Palestinian elections did not illustrate the danger of a reckless rush toward hoped-for democratic representation without first carefully and systematically building the necessary democratic institutions – a free press; a legislature with a healthy opposition standing a real chance of coming to power; an honest judicial system not dictated by religious or ideological prejudices; and strict, effective and fair law enforcement – there is the much fresher example of Hizbullah in Lebanon.
In Iraq, with all the aid and military support provided by a US-led coalition, the road to democratization faces sometimes seemingly insurmountable challenges with sectarian turmoil threatening to throw the country into anarchy.
Even Turkey, with its 80-year-old history of civic society with a strong focus on secular values safeguarded by its military, constitution and long history of democratic practices, seems headed in a decidedly Islamist direction under the Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
Radical Islam is the zeitgeist of the region. Egypt is no exception.
In the past few decades Egypt has become increasingly more prone to extremism. Mubarak, aware of the strength of the Islamists, has given them more freedom to aggressively pursue their radical agenda, while maintaining ultimate political authority and a monopoly over the security forces in the hope of directing the process of reforms and protecting the ruling secular elite.
Islamists have gradually assumed control over Egypt’s major professional unions, including the lawyers’ syndicate, once the country’s most liberal and secular professional association. Shari’a law is increasingly being applied in the courts to prosecute secular intellectuals, writers, professors, artists and journalists for purely religious “crimes” such as blasphemy and apostasy. The Muslim Brotherhood has also taken over the Teachers’ Training College, producing educators who disseminate radical Islamic ideas in the classrooms. This process has taken its toll. Just last month Islamists attacked a church in Alexandria, massacring 23 Coptic Christians.
Riding on popular support, the Muslim Brotherhood has succeeded in making inroads despite being deprived of political power. In 2005’s Egyptian parliamentary elections, an “independent” party affiliated with the Brotherhood – officially banned from political activity – obtained almost 20 percent of the vote, five times higher than in 2000’s elections, and would have garnered more if not for blatant government interference. More aggressive ballot-rigging in the November and December 2010 elections – ranging from removing the names of opposition candidates to blocking their representatives from monitoring polls, from shutting polling stations in the face of would-be- voters to simple stuffing of ballot boxes – kept a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party down to just one seat in the 454-member parliament, though it also stoked anger on the street.
AND WHAT does the Brotherhood think of the democratic process? “We accept the concept of pluralism for the time being,” Mustafa Mashur, former supreme guide of the Brotherhood, noted a few years ago. “However, when we will have Islamic rule we might then reject this concept or accept it.”
For a radical Islamic movement that openly states its intention to establish a state run in accordance with Shari’a law and which views anyone who does not adhere to such a vision as an apostate, our bet is that rejection of liberalism is much more likely than acceptance. We hope the US administration will recognize the dangers implicit in too speedy a transition to the trappings of democracy, without first laying the necessary groundwork. Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq are instructive lessons in the dangers of a faulty democratic processes.
Nobody wants Egypt’s first democratic elections to be its last.