The world is watching closely as Egypt goes down the contentious road to democracy. As the most populous Arab country and arguably the most influential nation in the Arab world, Egypt’s transition is important to the stability and future of the Middle East. Understandably, American policy makers and pundits are a bit edgy about the unexpected and capricious nature of Egypt’s nascent, electoral politics. Several pieces of Egypt’s future are still inconclusive and will remain that way for years to come. However, what has become clear is the undeniable rise of the Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi al-Nour party combined hold more than 70% of Egypt’s parliament. Islamists claim this as a clear mandate for reorientation of politics in Egypt.
What is most troubling, however, is not the rise of the Islamists but the pointed, manifest hostility by many American politicians and pundits to the newly elected politicians in Egypt. Their distrust for Islamists is detailed well. First, Egyptian Islamists have been associated with violence, extremism and even terrorism. Islamism’s many incarnations have often taken violent turns. For example turn to the FLN in Algeria, which fought a bloody decade long civil war against the country’s secular establishment. This bloodstained track record makes people suspicious of any Islamist group that vies for power. Second, Americans are fearful for the fate of one of the US’ most strategic ally in the Middle East. Islamists tend to be virulently anti-American and anti-Israeli. Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, signed in 1979, ended years of war between the two countries and ensured a measure of peace for the Jewish state. Hosni Mubarak never dared to question the peace treaty because the Americans provided Egypt with the second biggest sum of foreign aid — $1.3 billion to be exact. Many analysts have stated the linchpin of Israel’s security strategy is the peace treaty. Egypt also has the Arab world’s most formidable army and poses the greatest threat to the Israel. Americans worry that if Islamists take over, Israel will become vulnerable.
Some of these worries make sense. From the American standpoint, it is beneficial to our interests to have a friendly pro-Western, pro-American government running Egypt. It is also justifiable to be a little apprehensive about Islamists given the violence perpetrated by some deviant groups. However, it must be noted that the Muslim Brotherhood denounced violence in the 1970s and since then has been strongly committed to electoral politics. None of the major Islamist parties in the Egyptian parliament have any ties to any violent groups. So why do many American experts continue to show open enmity for the Muslim Brotherhood? It is because they believe the Muslim Brotherhood represents a backwards, outdated ideology that is incompatible with Western ideals. Even if they were right, it is wrong for us to expect Western ideals to exclusively shape Egypt or any other country in the Middle East.
This is a problem that often plagues western intelligentsia. There is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, expectation that the people of the Muslim world should be more like the people in the West. They want to see the same values and mores being practiced in Egypt as practiced in any other liberal democracy. They fear the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism will be a return to the “dark ages” for Egypt. The problem with this mentality is that it ignores the current reality and positions of Islamist parties which are the exact opposite.
The Western world has had a very long and arduous journey in its development. Enlightenment did not come easily. Western values such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, democracy, liberalism and individualism did not come about overnight. Centuries of conflict, bloodshed and struggle preceded the establishment of these values. Impossible odds had to be overcome before we had the luxury to claim those values and freedoms as our own. West achieved its freedoms through its own journey. The Magna Carta means more to an Englishman or an American than it does to an Arab. Cairo had no Bastille to storm nor did its street flow with the blood of the Thirty Years war.
All these events are part of our historical perspective in the west. They have defined our culture and our beliefs for centuries. Similarly, a different set of values have defined the societies of the East. One good example of distinction is secularism. While the West established secularism early, most Muslim nations mixed religion and politics up until the colonial era. There was no indigenous separation of religion and politics. Islam had always been an integral part of the lives of every citizen, both in the private sphere and the public sphere. Therefore, it is foolish and narrow minded to expect the people of another civilization to disregard their own history and adopt a new set of customs and norms unlike their own.
But that doesn’t mean the two civilizations are mutually exclusive. There is much common ground between the East and the West. What we esterners need to do is not promote one group in Egypt over the other. The Islamists in Egypt have such a strong position precisely because Egypt is also a deeply religious country with a long tradition of Islamic scholarship. Sunni Islam’s greatest institution of learning, al-Azhar University has been running for in Egypt for nearly a millennia. Given Egypt’s history, it makes sense for Islamism to have such a strong following in the country. In fact, it would be odd if Islam wasn’t in Egyptian politics one way or another. That doesn’t mean we should expect an Egypt devoid of human rights and freedom. If the Muslim Brotherhood keeps its promises, we should see basic freedoms increase in the Arab nation, not decrease. We have to trust the Egyptian people to hold their newly elected leaders accountable. Our job should be to step back and give the Egyptians the space they need to set their house in order.
Update (06/15/2012): The Egyptian Constitutional Court ruled that the parliamentary elections were unconstitutional and ordered parliament to be dissolved. While this obviously will have huge ramifications for Egyptian politics, the core arguments of this post are still valid.