Don't Fear the Brotherhood

Running away from the Islamic party is exactly what the entrenched Egyptian ruling class wants America to do.

When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking last week at a security conference in Munich, alluded to "forces at work" in the protests in Egypt -- or "in any society" -- "that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own specific agenda," she didn't have to spell out whom she had in mind: the Muslim Brotherhood. Those spoilers, she went on, were the reason it was so important to support "the transition process" initiated by Egypt's new vice president, Omar Suleiman, even though it wholly excludes both the protesters themselves and their principal demands.

Not to be outdone, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, denounced President Barack Obama's administration for going soft on "extremists" like the Brotherhood, who "must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt." No matter how Egypt's transition unfolds, one thing is likely to remain constant for Egypt's defensive and endangered ruling class: The Muslim Brotherhood will be a gift that keeps on giving.

Egypt's rulers have long understood that they can't persuade the West that secular reformers pose a danger to Egypt or the world. The Islamists, however, are another story. And while the secularists have been a minor nuisance to the regime (at least until just now), the Brotherhood -- well-organized, disciplined, and widely admired -- really did constitute a political threat. So the regime and its defenders harp relentlessly on the Brotherhood's "real" intentions. When I was in Cairo in early 2007, Hossam Badrawi, the man who was just named Secretary-General of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), told me that allowing the Brotherhood to freely run for office would be like legalizing the Nazi party in Germany. Another cautioned that, while the Brothers were not "necessarily" terrorists, they certainly hoped to impose Saudi-style sharia on Egypt.

And it worked. After making a rousing 2005 speech at the American University in Cairo calling on President Hosni Mubarak to open up the political process, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice answered a question by saying, "We have not engaged the Muslim Brotherhood, and...we won't." Mubarak's security forces subsequently beat and killed Brotherhood supporters in parliamentary elections, and the White House issued only the mildest protest. George W. Bush's administration maintained a conspicuous silence as the regime carried out mass arrests of the opposition group's leaders in 2007.

It's not only the regime's apologists who profess to fear the Muslim Brotherhood; I had no trouble finding secular Cairenes who took an equally dim view. The group's slogan is, after all, "Islam is the solution," and the appeal its political leaders make to the rank and file is long on religious orthodoxy. Still, I spent two weeks talking to members of the Brotherhood -- something the secular critics rarely do -- and though I did feel they were putting their best foot forward for a Western journalist, I was struck by their reluctance to impose their views on others and their commitment to democratic process. They had been drawn to the Brotherhood not only by piety but also by the group's reputation for social service and personal probity.

Many of these men were lawyers, doctors, or engineers. But I also spent several evenings with an electrician named Magdy Ashour, who had been elected to parliament from a dismal slum at the furthest edge of Cairo (he's now an independent, after being ousted from the Brotherhood in December). He was at pains to counter what he assumed were my preconceptions. "When people hear the name Muslim Brotherhood, they think of terrorism and suicide bombings," Ashour conceded. "We want to establish the perception of an Islamic group cooperating with other groups, concerned about human rights. We do not want to establish a country like Iran, which thinks that it is ruling with a divine mandate. We want a government based on civil law, with an Islamic source of lawmaking."

And just what is an "Islamic source of lawmaking?" Muhammad Habib, then the Muslim Brotherhood's deputy supreme guide -- its second-ranking official-- explained to me that, under such a system, parliament would seek the advice of religious scholars on issues touching upon religion, though such views could never be binding. A democratically elected parliament, he asserted, would still have the "absolute right" to pass a law the Brotherhood deemed "un-Islamic." And the proper redress for religious objections would be a formal appeal process in the constitutional court.

Maybe they were lying. But I didn't think so. More to the point, the Muslim Brotherhood's then 88-member caucus in the legislature studiously avoided religious issues and worked with secular opposition members on issues of democracy and human rights. They all lived together in a hotel, showed up for work every day, and invited outside experts for policy briefings. It was widely agreed that the Brothers took parliament far more seriously than members of the ruling party ever had.

In a free election, the Brothers would have swamped the NDP, but instead, they only contested a quarter of the seats in the People's Assembly; they did not want to provoke a backlash by an imperiled regime. Even serving in office was new for the organization, which had preoccupied itself for years with service and organization at the community and mosque level. It is true that one wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, radicalized in prison in the 1960s, became the forerunner of al Qaeda; Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of this faction, is now Osama bin Laden's deputy. But many of Zawahiri's cellmates rejected his call for violent resistance and embraced meliorism and a cautious, if often shadowy, distance from the state. It is this latter group that has shaped the modern Brotherhood. To not alarm the West, the Brotherhood has said that it will not run a candidate even if permitted to do so in a democratic presidential contest. Because this is consistent with past behavior, the burden of proof is on those who view the group's promise as a cynical ruse.

The Muslim Brotherhood has spread throughout the Arab world but has no central command, and in each country it has been shaped by the local political culture. In the Palestinian territories, the Brotherhood became Hamas; in Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Egyptian Brotherhood does not engage in violence like Hamas but neither has it integrated into the larger society and polity like the AKP. The Brothers have been able to cling to vague and simple-minded slogans precisely because, unlike the AKP, they haven't been allowed to compete openly in the political marketplace. If they were to do so, the organization would have to choose between the tolerant-sounding message it offers to Western visitors and the more reactionary one reserved for the home front.

I think that's a risk Egypt should take -- not only because the Muslim Brotherhood is not Hamas, but because, in the wake of the thoroughly secular mass protest movement, the Brotherhood is no longer likely to attract a majority of Egyptian voters.

Still, that's not a risk Clinton or the Muslim Brotherhood's more vocal American detractors are in the mood for. The "specific agenda" they fear is not that the Brotherhood will impose sharia, but that it could destroy Israel. The Brothers with whom I spoke were not only anti-Israel, but pro-Hamas. Israel has every reason to fear the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood government. But would a secular democracy in Egypt be more sympathetic to Israel than an Islamist one? In Egypt, as elsewhere in the Arab world, elites have learned that accepting Israel's existence is the price of admission to international good opinion. But the man or woman on the street would like to see Israel disappear tomorrow.

Successive U.S. administrations have supported Arab autocrats because they help advance a number of vital American interests; defending Israel is, of course, right on top of the list. Concern for Israel's security has thus been one of the chief factors limiting U.S. support for democracy in the Arab world. The Bush administration underwent a serious change of heart on the subject when Hamas won democratic elections in Palestine in January 2006. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now imploring the Obama administration to help keep Mubarak and his team in office, no matter the consequences for Egypt's revolution. He (along with some of those autocratic allies) has found a receptive audience in Washington.

The repudiation of Israel is a very serious problem -- but it is a problem with Middle Eastern democracy, not with Islamism. Turkey, the one democracy in the region, has taken a sharp turn away from its pro-Israel policies of years past. Turkish diplomats will tell you that public opinion will not permit a different policy. The answer, for the United States and for Israel, cannot be to stand athwart history shouting, "Stop!" The only possible answer is to accept the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people for a state of their own. If that happens, American officials will sound a lot less conflicted about the Muslim Brotherhood's democratic bona fides.

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Terms of Engagement

Let's Try This Again

Egypt could be a watershed moment for democracy promotion in the Arab world -- but only if the United States understands how it went wrong the last time.

I recently went back to my 2008 book, The Freedom Agenda, in order to deliver a mea culpa on behalf of all of us democracy promoters who failed to foresee the People Power moment now sweeping the Arab world. I was delighted, instead, to discover the following: "How long will the next generation, primed by the Internet and satellite news, put up with repression and paralysis? … Would it really be so surprising if the Egyptian people went from stoicism to confrontation? … It may not be an act of realism but rather of naïveté to once again put all our chips on 'moderate' dictators such as Hosni Mubarak."

Yay me. But if you had asked me "OK, how long?" I would have said, "Not all that soon." At least in the short run, I assumed, democratization in the Middle East would be a matter of whatever modest openings autocratic regimes grudgingly permitted. And this assumption was widespread. In an essay in Beyond the Façade: Political Reform in the Arab World, Michele Dunne and Amr Hamzawy write, "For Egypt to move toward democracy, the ruling establishment would have to share a great deal more power and open the system up to much more competition than it has to date." And of course it wasn't likely to do that. "For the time being," Larry Diamond wrote in 2008 in The Spirit of Democracy, "the moment of democratic reform in the Arab world has passed."

Democratization, in short, meant "reform": a process pushed from below but ultimately granted from above. And because Arab autocrats understood perfectly well that real reform would lead inevitably to demands for wholesale change they could not survive, they had learned how to open the valves just enough to let frustrated citizens blow off steam and then return to their lives of benumbed acceptance. It appeared to be a highly sustainable system. In a 2005 essay, scholar Daniel Brumberg called these states "liberal autocracies." During that brief interlude after the Tunisian people had risen up but before the Egyptians had, it was often noted that Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had lacked the Machiavellian foresight to let fake political parties bloom and keep independent media on a suitably short leash. The autocracy hadn't been liberal enough.

Why were most of us so wedded to the reform-from-the-top model? I suppose because it was familiar -- from Latin America, for example -- and because the alternative seemed so unlikely, at least in the short run. A typical demonstration in Egypt consisted of a few hundred brave activists surrounded by several thousand riot police and hired thugs. The great mass of people seemed unwilling to confront state power. Perhaps it was a matter of political culture: The Arab world had a "dignity" tradition, but not a "rights" tradition. In Pakistan, with its British heritage of constitutionalism, lawyers had taken to the streets to protest the mistreatment of judges. Equally gross violations of the rule of law had provoked nothing comparable in Egypt.

Arab citizens turned out to be more like people elsewhere than we had thought: Decades of repression and injustice had brought them to the boiling point. The farcically rigged parliamentary elections in Egypt this past December may have provided the last necessary increment of popular outrage. Modern media did the rest: both by bringing thrilling images of revolt into every household and by allowing activists to mobilize vast numbers of people without the institutions -- political parties, labor unions, professional associations -- that had been required in the past.

And so Tunisia and Egypt are not "liberalizing," but rather, at least if all goes well -- a giant if, of course -- will pass directly from dictatorship to democracy at some point in the coming months. This is incredibly thrilling, and also dangerous. States that hold elections before they've had the chance to evolve away from ancient autocratic habits tend to become what Fareed Zakaria called "illiberal democracies" -- the opposite, more or less, of the liberal autocracy. Africa is full of states like the Democratic Republic of the Congo that have the formal trappings and official nomenclature of democracy, but none of the accountability or even genuine representativeness. "People power" brought democracy to the Philippines without significantly changing the corruption and fecklessness of the autocratic Ferdinand Marcos.

It's a dangerous moment, but also a golden opportunity. The vast American machinery of democracy promotion in the Arab world had absolutely nothing to do with the events of the last month or so -- because it was predicated on a "liberalization" model that even advocates recognized wasn't going anywhere. But if there is to be an effective transition to democracy, the civil society organizations and nascent political parties that American and European funds have been nurturing will serve as the means by which mass enthusiasm can be channeled into participation and citizens can monitor and help shape the actions of their government.

The golden opportunity is to help Egypt, Tunisia, and perhaps others to hold free and fair elections, and over the long term to develop the institutions that broaden and sustain democracy. I asked Kenneth Wollack, head of the National Democratic Institute, what this would entail in practice. "First," he said, "the requests have to come from local actors; you have to be standing behind them." That said, he noted that experience in Eastern Europe and elsewhere showed that in the run-up to transitional elections, organizations like his own can make a difference by advising officials on the reform of laws governing the function of political parties, electoral commissions, and the media; by working with civil society organizations engaged in election monitoring; and by helping political parties organize and develop platforms.

But democracy promotion institutions can only do just so much; the most difficult and dangerous issues require sustained diplomatic engagement. Washington must make it clear that Mubarak's apparent decision to use security forces to wreak mayhem on protesters will destroy relations between the two countries. If Mubarak steps down, the White House must push for an inclusive transitional government and must seek to limit the power of the Army in any new government, so that Egypt does not become, like Pakistan, a military state with a feeble civilian government. These are, of course, Egyptian questions, but Egyptians will inevitably look to Washington to see where it stands. "We have to lead on democracy and human rights," as Wollack says.

Will that happen? For all its rhetorical commitment to a democratic Arab world, Barack Obama's administration cannot help but feel apprehensive about the consequences for U.S. national security. Some policy experts, such as Leslie Gelb, have warned of the calamity of a government dominated by the broadly popular Muslim Brotherhood, which, like a great many Egyptians, rejects the state of Israel and supports the radicals of Hamas. With this in mind, Stephen Hadley, national security advisor to former President George W. Bush, has suggested that the United States try to delay elections in Egypt so that "civil society and non-Islamist political parties can emerge."

This is a temptation that must be resisted. First, it wouldn't do any good: If people want elections, they won't be dissuaded by being told they're not "ready" for them (even when they're not). Second, it would reinforce the view that the United States only believes in democracy when the outcome is to its own liking. Third, it's probably unnecessary because the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt seems to be shying away from power rather than actively seeking it, while Islamists in Tunisia are both less popular and more moderate. And finally, the most effective way for the United States to shape outcomes in an increasingly democratic Arab world is to be seen as a champion of popular aspirations. What American policymakers did over the last half-dozen years to promote democracy in the Middle East mattered much less than they thought; what they do now will matter a great deal.

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