Sunday, November 23, 2014



If most people are irrational,
Is democracy the ideal way?

Phyllis Carter

In 2007 I spent several weeks in Egypt interviewing members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the group's leaders in Parliament. They were, I wrote at the time, just about the only Egyptians I met who took the legislative process seriously. This provoked a lot of disbelief among readers, Western as well as Egyptian, who saw the Brothers as single-minded religious ideologues. The reassurance I always offered was: "Don't worry, they'll never be in power."
I was dead wrong. So, it turns out, was the Brotherhood itself. As Shadi Hamid writes in "Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East," the Islamist group had learned to thrive under decades of autocratic repression and was hopelessly unprepared to rule Egypt. But following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, that is exactly what it wound up doing until President Mohammad Morsi was overthrown in a coup last summer. The Brotherhood government's fecklessness, as well as its resort to repressive measures, raises the question: Are Islamists fit to govern at all? Mr. Hamid, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has been writing thoughtfully about Islamists since before the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, is not quite convinced that they are.
The Islamists are a confounding political phenomenon, and Mr. Hamid is acute on the paradoxes they present. He points out, for example, that repression and jail, which the Brothers have endured intermittently since Hassan al-Banna founded the group in 1928, actually made them more moderate and not more radical, as one would expect. After a fierce campaign against the Brotherhood in the early 1990s, Mr. Hamid notes, the Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt issued "foundational texts" endorsing political pluralism and human rights and scanting all mention of Shariah law. Both groups held internal elections designed to demonstrate the sincerity of these commitments.
As Mr. Hamid explains, the reason for this reform is that the Brotherhood is, or rather was, not a partisan entity but a kind of parallel state, providing a range of social services that serve as the foundation for its political popularity. Crackdowns threaten those institutions; thus the Brothers react by demonstrating that they pose no harm to the state. This is why I found secular liberals so contemptuous of the Brotherhood: They believed, perhaps rightly, that the group had found a modus vivendi with the Mubarak government.
Yet as Mr. Hamid observes, such appeasement didn't work, since brittle autocratic regimes feel more threatened by moderate Islamist parties than by radical ones. In 2005 Brotherhood candidates, running as independents since the organization was formally banned decades before, won 88 seats in Parliament. By scrupulously avoiding moral and theological issues and emphasizing democracy and good government, the Brothers significantly raised their standing among Egyptians. Terrified of the group's rising popularity, the regime began a process of midnight arrests. By the time the popular uprising against Mr. Mubarak began in 2011, the organization's leadership had been decimated. It was the Arab Spring that sprang them.

Temptations of Power

By Shadi Hamid 

The other great paradox is what Mr. Hamid calls, lifting a phrase from Fareed Zakaria, the "illiberal democracy" that the Islamists champion. Groups such as the Brotherhood, he writes, "are interested in fashioning religiously oriented states through democratic means and maintaining them through democratic means." Their commitment to democracy, he insists, is real, not tactical. What makes this commitment possible is the knowledge that free elections in a society like Egypt will favor Islamists. Mr. Hamid cites a 2011 poll, which found that 88% of Egyptians favor the death penalty for apostasy, and a 2012 survey, which found that Egyptians prefer the Saudi fundamentalist model to the Turkish secularized one, 61% to 17%. Beyond polling, the real proof that Egyptians are with the Islamists came in 2012, when Islamists of one stripe or another won three-quarters of the seats in parliamentary elections.
The Brotherhood really is committed to majoritarianism; but it is also really committed to Islamic rule. Once in power, and vying for favor with more extremist Salafists, the Brotherhood government showed growing contempt for the country's liberal minority and sought to instill Islamic principles in a revised constitution. Its highhanded rule awakened long-standing fears about the Brotherhood's secret designs, and the old guard in the military, the bureaucracy and the judiciary was relentless in undermining Mr. Morsi. Ultimately, the Morsi government never got the chance to succeed—or fail.
But overthrowing Mr. Morsi wasn't enough for the old guard: In March, a court sentenced 528 of his supporters to death. Indeed, the whole Arab world is now in the grip of a hysteria over the Brotherhood. I wish Mr. Hamid had addressed the strange spectacle of the secular government of the United Arab Emirates last year prosecuting dozens of Islamists as alleged members of a fifth column, while Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi government—far more theologically reactionary than the Brothers—declares the group a terrorist threat. The Brotherhood has become a pan-Arab "other" 
for regimes seeking to tighten their grip on restive citizens.
That's not Mr. Hamid's subject, which is, at bottom, whether the Arab world can have democracy and whether its form of democracy could be compatible with liberalism. This is the great, as-yet-unanswered question of the upheaval once hopefully known as the Arab Spring. Mr. Hamid observes that while the illiberal democrats of, say, Uganda or Nicaragua are simply power-hungry, Islamists are illiberal by ideological design. Even the most moderate among them, Rachid Ghannouchi, the founder of Tunisia's Nahda party, has written, according to Mr. Hamid, that Islamic governance "is the dividing line between faith and disbelief."
I don't think this is where Mr. Hamid, who urged U.S. policy makers to work with the Brotherhood government, wanted to come out. But he is to be commended for delivering complicated news to no one's liking—not the Brothers, not their modestly hopeful fans in the West, and not their fire-breathing enemies either.
Mr. Traub writes the weekly column Terms of Engagement for He is writing a biography of John Quincy Adams.

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