Monday, November 28, 2005

Radical Islam and the Egyptian Elections

Results from the Egyptian elections reveal that members of a radical Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, have won up to 29 more seats in the 444 seat Egyptian parliament. Members of that group now have 76 seats overall, or 17 percent of all parliamentary seats. As the Financial Times has noted, "President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic party still looks set to retain a large majority in spite of its losses but the elections have underlined Washington’s dilemma in pushing for greater democracy in the Middle East." The next test will come December 1, when the Muslim Brotherhood will field candidates to fill 49 of 136 seats.

The Bush Administration hopes that the hallmark of its second term will be the spread of democracy in the Middle East. Experts speak of "the Bush Administration's unprecedented willingness to publicly criticize oppressive actions ... by friendly governments" in the Middle East. The American-sponsored Greater Middle East Initiative is a call for the G-8 to promote democracy in the region by committing to free elections, sponsoring parliamentary exchange and training, increasing women's participation in the legislative process, promoting judicial and legal reform, enhancing an independent media, promoting transparency, and developing civil society. A Brookings Institution scholar has praised the GMEI, stating that "The new GMEI draft reveals that the United States is no longer alone in its quest to address the region's acknowledged deficits in freedom, knowledge, and women's empowerment, but has engaged its European allies in a fruitful discussion of how to go about promoting reform."
If you are uncertain of Bush's commitment to democracy in the Middle East, read this speech, and this, and this, and this. Especially telling are the parallels Bush draws between Reagan's efforts at democratization in Europe and his own in the Middle East:
"President Reagan said that the day of Soviet tyranny was passing, that freedom had a momentum which would not be halted.... A number of critics were dismissive.... According to one editorial of the time, 'It seems hard to be a sophisticated European and also an admirer of Ronald Reagan.' In fact, Ronald Reagan's words were courageous and optimistic and entirely correct.... And now we must apply that lesson in our own time. We've reached another great turning point -- and the resolve we show will shape the next stage of the world democratic movement."
A senior State Department official told me last month that the top foreign policy objective of the Bush Administration's second term would be the global march toward democracy. Time will tell whether this is in fact true. Other priorities compete for prominence, including "access to oil, cooperation and assistance on counterterrorism, fostering peace between Israel and its neighbors, stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and preventing Islamist radicals from seizing power." Bush's response to the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egytpian electoral process will be a good test of his priorities. In past meetings with Mubarik, Bush has avoided the issue, strongly praising Mubarik's support in the global war on terror, while also encouraging the "ongoing debate on reform in Egypt, including the excellent discussions involving civil society representatives from the Arab world." But what happens when civil society reform shows itself to be decidedly uncivil?

Despite the fact that there arguably has never been a truly free Arab democracy in 1,500 years, we may be on the cusp of a nascent move toward democracy in the region. There are encouraging signs of democracy's progress in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt. One wonders if we are witnessing an inchoate Arab democracy movement that will revolutionize politics in the Middle East. The rosiest vision is that democracy will flower there much as it did with the Polish Solidarity movement in the early 1980s, which in a few short years revolutionized politics throughout Eastern Europe. But even if democracy in the Middle East one day mirrors Eastern Europe, we should expect both successes and a share of setbacks.

Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood is a far cry from Polish Solidarity. The great risk of democracy in the Middle East is that free and fair elections will result in dramatic in-roads for radical Islam. Middle East suffrage may portend suffering at the hands of a tyrannical fundamentalist majority. Alternatively, budding democracies in the Middle East may exhibit a strong commitment to fighting Islamic terrorism, but not prove particularly successful in combating it.

In the end, I share the assessment that "the Arab world's authoritarian political climate has itself fueled the growth of militant Islamist movements ... In an environment where freedoms of speech, association, and assembly are heavily restricted, Islamists also enjoy a natural advantage because they can organize and express themselves through mosques and other religious institutions, where governments are typically reluctant to intervene. If relatively free and fair elections are held under such conditions, radical Islamists are likely to achieve inflated electoral success.... [But] the risks in giving democracy a chance in the Arab world are more manageable than the risks of appearing to be indifferent to this popular aspiration."
One might say that it is exceedingly unlikely that any country that belongs to the axis of democracy will also become a member of the axis of evil.


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