Islam is on the march in the Middle East. This is indisputable. For the past few years, in every Mideast election, the Islamic parties have won: in the Gaza Strip in 2006, in Iraq and Tunisia in 2010. In 2011, they won again in Turkey, Morocco, and Egypt where, the first parliamentary elections since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Islamist parties have confirmed an overwhelming victory.
The new preponderance of Islamic political power in the region poses serious and genuine threats to U.S. interests. A former veteran U.S. intelligence source who lived in Cairo for years, told me that America’s main worry had centered on the possibility that Egypt at some point would experience an Islamic landslide in which the Islamics secured a majority and who would then gradually leveraged its legislative authority to divest the military of its traditional power and outlaw political opponents. If that occurred, he feared that Egypt could start linking up with similar groups in Tunisia, Syrian, Libya and Yemen which would be catastrophic.
When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, its efforts were directed to controlling Egypt by outlawing its opposition and imposing a very strict version of Islam on what basically a secular country. This they did until they were booted from power by the Egyptian military who, in turn, outlawed the Brotherhood. It was an example of circular despotism, but at least the military was secular. Just recently, Egypt’s military scored a significant victory in the latest election aimed at setting up a new constitution, and the attempts by American pundits who claim that the triumph of strongman General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was due to manipulations, intimidations, and bullying ignore the popular popularity of the military among the Egyptian mass. It is true that the election results were deeply skewed by the fact many of the Salafist parties abstained from it, mainly on the grounds that democracy – government by men — is a blasphemy in Islam where men are supposed to be governed only by God.
As expected, there appears to a certain amount of dismay among America’s media pundits about the new election. The majority of them regard the result as shockingly undemocratic. But when it comes to a country like Egypt, it is an unfortunate truth that the methods used by a dictator to administer his power may last long after the dictator himself has fallen. There were millions of supporters for General el-Sisi and his victory ended political instability, a deteriorating economy and growing political unrest. It seems to me a piece of idiocy to think that Egypt’s military will soon withdraw from politics.
The question must then be asked, with no tradition of democracy or constitutional government, what shape is Egypt’s future likely to take? Two years ago, the discontent of Egypt’s idealist rebels, its liberals, its students, and leftists in Tahir Square burst forth like a flood unleashed by a thundercloud. Their courage, their steadfastness, and their unfaltering will, rightly thrilled the world. But protesting wrongs is not equivalent to governing a country equitably.
The protests of the leftists, the idealistic youth, and the liberals Egypt’s liberal idealists were certain that they were Egypt’s future, but is that realistic? Clearly in my opinion, they are not. Participation in social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and so forth, may chatter away about “change,” but too often popular idealism is the prisoner of the moment, and can hardly be a basis for governing. Leaderless and loosely organized, the liberal revolt’s weak showing in the early Egyptian elections was due to its participants’ lack of ability to competently organize, to create a governing coalition, or to lay any sound foundations of a new political order. The liberal hope is unrealistic because the character of past Egyptian governments has been authoritarian for so many recent years., and also because the power of the military has been much greater than competent political power in that country.
It should be remembered that the forms, the habits and means of government over the long term have to reflect the understandings and expectations of its people. The Egyptians have never known democracy as we, Americans, understand it. They have experienced next to nothing of the centuries long development of self disciplined domestic management of political affairs out of which our own culture has evolved. If you presented them today with our system, they would not know what to do with it or how to operate it with any success. The American experiment in democracy was and remains an experiment, not the example of a predetermined political destiny.
We Americans forget that American democracy was very slow in coming, aided by the fact that in Virginia and other key areas, Americans were free to assemble at town meetings, to draw up and debate bills, and successfully undertook those parliamentary procedures that in time bore excellent fruit. For example, in the young colonial societies where the majority of people belonged to freehold farming families, the class lines were so fluid that former indentures servants could and did rise to membership in legislative assemblies where radical ideas respecting life ad labor differing form those in England, gained in force.
In any case, democracy is a very loose term, and all sorts of mistaken foibles and temporary infatuation have masqueraded under it. As Americans we should be careful to judge right from wrong because our own criteria are too faulty and subjective. The real interests of Egypt have to deal with national security, political integrity, and economic prosperity, the task being to deliver to Egypt’s people higher standard of living, gender equality and the protection of minorities, and one has to hope that the military will make those goals good for them..