by Joshua Muravchik - American Enterprise Institute (USA)
- [article published on the Wall Street Journal in 2005]
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George W. Bush's policy of encouraging democracy in the Middle
East has hit a bump in the road in the last few weeks. Elections
to the Egyptian People's Assembly had promised to be another
step toward democratization in a country that Mr. Bush has
looked to as a pathbreaker for the region. But several rounds
of balloting have been marred by deadly violence and severe
irregularities--and have also resulted in a big win for the
Although the Brotherhood remains illegal, its candidates
stood as "independents" while identifying their
affiliation more openly than in the past. They came away with
88 seats by the early returns, a number that may increase
slightly when all of the counting is completed. Impressive
though these numbers are, they understate the Brotherhood's
success. Trying to avoid a government crackdown, the group
offered candidates for only 125 of the 444 seats at stake,
which means that something like three-quarters of them triumphed.
This will give the group 20% of the seats in the assembly,
the largest opposition bloc that body has ever had.
In theory, that should be good: Mr. Bush's strategy rests
on the premise that the give-and-take habits of democracy
will work as a tonic to cure the region of its propensity
toward terrorism. But the Muslim Brotherhood, although it
renounced violence 30 years ago, is the granddaddy of all
radical Islamist groups: Such terrorist outfits as Hamas,
Jamaat al-Islamiyya (whose spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdel
Rahman, was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), and
parts of al Qaeda sprung directly out of it. And the Brotherhood's
own adherence to democracy is uncertain.
To allay skepticism on the latter score, the group issued
a "reform initiative" in 2004 that "stressed
respect for partisan plurality, free elections, and the rotation
of power." Its spokesman added that the Brotherhood advocates
"complete equality in rights and duties" for Egypt's
Christian Copts and believes that "women are legally
competent and have full rights." For a time earlier this
year, Brotherhood cadres were instructed to use the slogan
"freedom is the answer" instead of its traditional
"Islam is the answer."
Some prominent Egyptian liberals have credited these claims,
or argued that the Brotherhood is in a state of evolution
that ought to be encouraged. As the political scientist Amr
Hamzawy put it: "Faced with ruling elites primarily interested
in preserving their power and weak liberal opposition actors
. . . the cause of political transformation in the region
is best served by bringing in Islamist movements and their
popular constituencies." Despite such counsel, the Bush
administration has respected the Egyptian government's position
that the Brotherhood is an illegal organization, and has spurned
contact with it. At the same time, it has wrestled with similar
questions about the roles of Hamas and Hezbollah in the political
processes of the Palestinians and Lebanon.
The issues posed by Hamas and Hezbollah are not hard to figure
out even though the necessary answers are discouraging. Each
of these organizations commands substantial support within
its polity, and democracy will be seriously attenuated if
those citizens are not represented. But neither can democracy
work in the presence of armed groups that intermingle violence
and politics in the process of working their way to power,
much as Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler did. Nor do the claims
by Hamas and Hezbollah that their arms are intended only for
use against Israel alleviate the problem. Democracy is robbed
of most of its meaning if the state is not sovereign, as it
cannot be with private groups carrying on their own wars across
its borders. The unhappy fact is that until Hamas and Hezbollah
disarm, democracy in those places will be partial at best.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt poses a different problem.
The group is not armed: In its early decades it carried out
assassinations and maintained a secret army, but gave this
up in the 1970s, in a bargain with the regime. Still, its
attitude toward violence remains highly equivocal.
The Brotherhood has forcefully condemned recent terror bombings
in Egypt and Jordan. On the other hand, Brotherhood leaders
have consistently endorsed the killing of Israelis in Israel
and Americans in Iraq, explicitly including civilians. The
symbol of the group is a Quran bracketed by crossed swords,
and its pronouncements--and the chants of its demonstrators--continue
to affirm the importance of jihad.
Its Web site features an article explaining what the group
means by "jihad." It denounces those who "defin[e]
jihad in an apologetic way that stresses only the dimension
of individual self-discipline." In truth, it says: "jihad
. . . can, of course, entail the use of force when peaceful
means are not successful."
Then, too, there is the problem of the Brotherhood's democratic
convictions. One important reason to doubt these is its own
internal structure. It is headed by a "Supreme Guide"
who is elected for life by the 15-member "General Guidance
Council." The council itself is not elected by the members
but perpetuates itself by co-opting additional members as
need arises. The entire structure of the organization resembles
the so-called "democratic centralism" of Communist
Parties, in which members rise through the ranks through promotion
by higher officials rather than by selection from below. And
the membership is secret. Of course, the secretiveness may
be a necessary response to repression. But the group is tolerated
enough to run an open and highly successful national election
campaign, and still it has taken few if any visible steps
to democratize itself. Recently some members split away, issuing
a public statement complaining that the Brotherhood's internal
ethos is: "I listen and I obey."
As for the Brotherhood's endorsement of women's rights, its
Web site features an article by the only woman candidate that
the group put forward in the election. Its title: "Men
are Superior to Women." And ubiquitous in Brotherhood
pronouncements and literature is the central goal of creating
a new caliphate to rule the entire Islamic world (and perhaps
beyond). How this can be reconciled with democracy, not to
mention peace, is hard to picture.
How should we respond to the Brotherhood? Although there
is much about it that is worrisome, its continued illegality
makes no sense, nor does America's refusal to talk to it.
(Whether the Brotherhood would wish to talk to America, which
its Supreme Guide recently called "an enemy of humanity,"
is another question.) With a powerful new bloc in parliament,
the Brotherhood's illegality is essentially a moot point.
The real problem is the effective ban on virtually all other
independent parties as well as persistent efforts to hamper
or cripple NGOs. When Ayman Nour broke the mold and succeeded
in registering his liberal Tomorrow Party, the Mubarak regime
proceeded to wage an ugly campaign of violence, dirty tricks
and trumped-up prosecution to destroy it and him. The regime's
strategy seems to have been to annihilate the liberals so
that the Americans would realize that the only alternative
to the incumbents is the Islamists. There was even evidence
of outright collusion between the regime and the Brotherhood
in the recent elections until the Brotherhood's surprisingly
strong showing in the early stages brought on a violent crackdown
by the authorities in the last round of voting.
Much that the Brotherhood has long stood for--a new caliphate,
the inferiority of women, the absolutist claim that Islam
is the answer not only to spiritual questions but also economic
and political ones--is abhorrent. But these ideas have considerable
appeal in Egypt and in the broader Arab and Islamic worlds.
The triumph of democracy and its concomitant values in that
region depends on the defeat of these ideas in open debate.
They cannot be defeated by repression. In the sunlight of
free political competition, perhaps the Brotherhood will indeed
rethink its tenets. And if not, one hopes that most Egyptians
will see why those tenets are fallacious.
Is there a danger that the Brotherhood could ride to power
through the democratic system and then destroy it, as Hitler
once did? Yes, there is. But there is a rising tide of democratic
sentiment in the Middle East, and if it leads to the triumph
of democracy in Egypt, it will not be so easy to turn around
and snuff it out. At the top of Egypt's political agenda,
as promised by President Mubarak in his recent election campaign,
is constitutional reform. This should include strong guarantees
of political and civil rights that could present some kind
of protection against a theocracy or other new dictatorship.
Of course such parchment barriers can be overridden by raw
force. The risks cannot be reduced to zero. But the bold policy
of democratizing the Middle East, like any grand undertaking
that promises substantial rewards, cannot be risk free.
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