The MB Question….Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood held a sizable rally yesterday demanding reforms, and met with a pretty rough police response. This raises tough questions. What should America’s position be on the real possibility that Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood would win free, fair elections? How can you seriously have democracy if you exclude the largest organized political force in the country? What’s the value of democracy if it brings to power illiberal forces?
Many moderate Islamists accept the legitimacy of democratic procedures (although many doubt their sincerity). They’re willing to participate, unlike the bin Ladenist types who reject democracy on principle. Having someone like the controversial al-Jazeera cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi consistently preaching the virtues of democracy to a vast al-Jazeera audience is worth a thousand marginal pro-American figures saying the same thing. Still, liberals (at least) can’t help but be disturbed by their socially conservative views on homosexuality, gender relations, the relationship between religion and state ? to say nothing of their hostility to Israel. So it’s a tough call.
I favor allowing moderate Islamists, and all groups which disavow violence, to participate in elections. I don’t see how democracy can be meaningful if they are excluded. Go down the exclusion route, and you’re right back with the old dictators. I can’t help but giggle at the argument that we should be happy to see Mubarak re-elected so that he can nurture a liberal opposition. Like he’s been doing for the last 24 years, you mean?
So here’s what I think we should do. I think the US should give up on easy solutions like a “democratic domino effect,” stop relying on stealth tactics (like supporting NGOs, or Radio Sawa’s “subliminal strategy” of hooking kids on American values with Britney Spears ? as if they didn’t already have Haifa Wehbe) and deal directly with the political realm.
We should be pushing for a level playing field, not trying to pick winners. Arab reform activists are smart and savvy, and they see through the bullshit (Kevin, can I say that?). We should accept that most of them don’t trust us or want direct American help, and do things that level the playing field and give them a fighting chance against entrenched regimes which don’t really want to give up their power. Concentrate on concrete things like freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, human rights, and independent monitoring of elections. Set down explicit markers on these fundamentals, and attach real financial and political costs to regimes violating them. Make it extremely clear to Arab leaders that we won’t look the other way if they use violence against protestors. I would put in a particular plug for emphasizing media freedoms as central to any functioning democracy ? something on which the Bush administration has had an absolutely atrocious record.
But at the same time we need to be frank about what real democracy might produce. That’s a debate I’d like to see Americans have. Better yet, I’d like to see Americans talking to the Arabs themselves, instead of it being all about us.