The Magazine

The Evil of Two Lessers

Egyptian politics boils down to Mubarak and the Islamists.

Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By PAUL MARSHALL
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Essam el-Erian, the Brotherhood's main conduit to Western media, is affable and gregarious as he seeks to allay fears of an Islamist state but declines to answer concrete questions. Two subjects get a rise out of him. One is the role of Islamic law, sharia, which he told me last month "is none of America's business," even though, if enforced by a Brotherhood government, it would amount to a state-coerced caste system of religion, sect, and gender. The other is support for civil society in Egypt, which "America absolutely should not do." El-Erian's response reveals the Brotherhood's fear of robust alternatives to both it and the regime. This is something for U.S. policymakers to keep in mind.

President Bush has said that elections are only "the beginnings of democracy," but they need not even be that. Without security, a free press, free debate, a robust opinion-shaping civil society, parties that have been able to organize and mature, and, not least, a range of choices for the electorate--none of which Egypt has--elections can prove hollow.

But Egypt has far more advantages than the Palestinian territories. It has breathing space, with six years until its next presidential election. And it has a talented but hitherto smothered population that could, if given the chance, contribute mightily to the growth of free institutions.

Paul Marshall, who was recently in Egypt, is senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom and the editor of, most recently, Radical Islam's Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Shari'a Law (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).