February 20, 2005

Taking Over Egypt

Finally got around to reading Joseph Braude's essay on Egypt in the New Republic, arguing that it's much too soon to have free presidential elections because the Islamists would win, unseat Husni Mubarak, and then wreak a bunch of unspecified "havoc" all over Egypt. The alternative, Braude suggests, is to somehow magically strengthen the (weakly organized) liberal-democratic movement in Egypt and hope that they can come to power.

Well now. My first reaction is to shake my head—for a long time I've liked the idea, floated by "left-leaning" academics and, of all people, Reuel Marc Gerecht, that we should just uncork these regimes, hold elections, and let the Islamists take over. Let them busy themselves with governing rather than with hating the United States for propping up brutal dictators. Eventually the whole process will soften Islamic radicalism and all will be well. But that's just the theory; the trick is figuring out what would happen in actual, real-life countries. So, to Egypt we go. Ah Egypt...

The first thing we'll do, let's look at the institutions. Assume an Islamist group like the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power via constitutional means (i.e. wins the presidential election, lifts the ban on MB as a political party, wins significant seats in the legislature). Suddenly they have legal control of a country with a) a Constitution that can potentially enshrine shari'a (traditional Islamic law) as the law of the land, b) a non-independent judiciary (Anwar Sadat originally made it independent, but it's been subjugated over the years, and I believe Mubarak has given himself the power to create extra-legal courts, and c) a terrible legislative tradition—many of the 50,000 laws are patchwork items, utterly vague, and conflict with each other. There's little rule of law here. (For more background, read Yustina Saleh's study of Egypt's constitution.) Oh, and let's toss in d) as far as I can tell, an Islamist president would still have the power to declare a state of emergency.

So it's not obvious that something even remotely democratic would emerge from a change of presidents. Meanwhile, instituting sharia would offer poor protection for Egypt's sizeable Coptic Christian community. (And by sizeable I mean about 4.5 million people—more than the number of Kurds in Iraq.) Copts, for instance, would have no standing in court against Muslims. And yes, things would be a good deal worse than they are now—the current Supreme Court takes a moderately liberal view on protections for minorities and the implementation of sharia.

On the plus side, however, the U.S. has never cared much for human rights or democracy when it's convenient, and here it might be convenient: Islamist rule could turn Islamic rage away from the United States, at least for awhile. Perhaps moreso if the U.S. was the country that pressured Mubarak into holding the elections in the first place.

After a victory, it's doubtful that the Islamists would maintain their current wide base of support. At the moment, they gain a number of followers by offering a nice network of social services, and blaming all deprivation on the state, but obviously they can't afford to provide services for the entire nation. Plus, many Egyptians back the Islamists less for their positive agenda than for their opposition to Mubarak's ideologically bankrupt regime. (Nazih Ayubi's Political Islam has a lot on this.)

The other possibility is that the Islamists in power would learn to compromise like any good political group, seeking pragmatic solutions to governing rather than inflexibly theological ones. The Muslim Brotherhood has worked closely with liberals and nationalists over the years, and ever since eschewing violence for politics they've become quite flexible. Meanwhile, Mubarak's massive National Democratic Party would remain a large element of the political opposition, and assuming the new Islamist rulers didn't abuse what's left of the rule of law in Egypt—which is a big assumption, obviously—a healthy political rivalry could form.

As well, a hugely neglected issue could arise: The intra-Islamist debates. The Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, has long feuded with the militant salafists in Saudi Arabia, while moderate groups like Hizb al-Wasat—an offshoot of the Brotherhood that somewhat embraces rights for women and Copts—have their own version of Islamist rule. This sort of dialogue would be a grand thing, and frankly, I don't see any other way for it to come about.

So that's the happy view. The unhappy view is that, over time, some Egyptians could grow disillusioned with their new Islamic government—especially if it failed to implement sharia—and seek refuge in even more radical strains of Islam that eventually joined the jihad against the United States. If you read Gilles Kepel's Muslim Extremism in Egypt, it's clear that the radicals can always find ways to declare current rulers illegitimate.

A number of other "X-factors" also start to emerge. It's worth noting that animosity toward the West will be a major pillar in any radical Islamist government, as Joseph Braude argues. And it's not just because of our policies: Many of these folks blame the influence of "decadent" Western culture for the Islamic world's moral decline. I'm not sure how big of an effect this would have, but I don't think Arab resentment towards the U.S. would disappear overnight. At the same time, though, Islamist Egyptians may no longer feel as threatened by the U.S., given that they're no longer ruled by leaders who imitate those decadent and morally corrupt Westerners. (Then again, you have to wonder how much the U.S. could actually support an Islamist regime in Egypt, especially one that repressed the country's 4.5 million Coptic Christians.)

It's also possible that a new Islamist regime could just blame the U.S. for all of its economic woes, and possibly redirect popular frustration in that way. Denouncing the U.S. for its trade policies and economic influence seems like a fruitful avenue here. Who knows? One day you have people like Ayman al-Zawihiri blowing up the World Trade Center to protest America's support for the Mubarak regime. The next, though, you could have new Egyptian Islamists blowing stuff up to protest the "exploitation" of Egypt by the IMF, WTO, etc.

Indeed, one thing that worries me is that the potential belligerence of the Muslim Brotherhood remains very much unknown. In Egypt, the group has certainly tamped down its radical tone over the last decade, mostly trying to effect change via peaceful means like elections. At the same time, another branch of the MB evolved along similar lines in Sudan, but then took part in the 1989 military coup when it looked like they couldn't win the elections. We know how that turned out. Perhaps the comparison's unfair—military coups always produce crappy regimes—but it's hardly trivial.

Still, when all is said and done, what's the alternative here? The Islamists are the only viable political opposition group in Egypt. I'm not sure either the U.S. or Mubarak himself have the ability to help the liberals gain influence. Building up a liberal civil society is really hard work, and a slow, painstaking process. It's also unlikely that Mubarak will instill the rule of law in Egypt before gracefully holding elections and turning over his throne. It takes time to train legislators on how to write intelligent laws, create a working system of judicial review, resolve a lot of constitutional muddles, etc. etc. And meanwhile, thanks to U.S. policies in Israel and Iraq over the past four years, conditions for nurturing moderate Islam are at an absolute nadir. (Thanks President Bush!)

So it's either stay the current course or let the radical Islamists come to power. I say uncork the damn bottle—hold elections and see what happens. The current course does us no good. But it's going to be a nailbiter.

Continue reading "Taking Over Egypt"
-- Brad Plumer 4:11 PM || ||