The Magazine

Democracy in Egypt

Why the West should welcome a political upheaval in the Middle East

Feb 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 21 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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After observing the administrative practices in the realm of Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman pasha of Egypt in the early 19th century, William Edward Lane, the great Arabic lexicographer, commented:

Most of the governors of provinces and districts carry their oppression far beyond the limits to which they are authorized to proceed by the Básha [Muhammad Ali]; and even the sheikh of a village, in executing the commands of his superiors, abuses his lawful power. Bribes and the ties of relationship and marriage influence him and them, and by lessening the oppression of some, who are more able to bear it, greatly increase that of others. But the office of a sheikh of a village is far from being a sinecure. At the period when the taxes are demanded of him, he frequently receives a more severe bastinadoing than any of his inferiors; for when the population of a village does not yield the sum required, their sheikh is often beaten for their default. .  .  . All the fellaheen [peasants] are proud of the stripes they receive for withholding their contributions. .  .  . Ammianus Marcellinus gives precisely the same character to the Egyptians of his time.

The Egypt of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar El-Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak made traditional “Oriental despotism” vastly more modern and merciless. Lane’s accounts of Muhammad Ali—Egypt’s first great modernizer, not known for his kindness—and his senior officials occasionally casting a vengeful eye on excessively corrupt officials and showing mercy to their victims seem quaint today given the cruel, predatory habits of President Mubarak, his family and friends, and his security men. With the exception of Syria, where the religiously heretical (Shiite) Alawite ruling family of Bashar al-Assad oversees a ferocious police state, Mubarak’s Egypt is the most advanced dictatorship in the Arab world. A Stasi-like array of spies spans the country, but discreetly and gently watches resident foreign businessmen, the Westernized Egyptian elite, and the American University of Cairo, a once-vibrant institution founded in 1919 by Presbyterians, now intellectually withered, where Egyptian and Western academics have exercised extraordinary caution in imparting disruptive ideas or criticism of the ruling family. Mubarak and his friends discovered that an Egypt at peace with Israel could attract billions in U.S. aid, regardless of the regime’s human rights record, and billions more from tourism, whose profitability continued even when Mubarak’s police state crushed the liberal dissident and presidential candidate Ayman Nour in 2005. Only the country’s religious extremism when it turned lethally against Western tourists made a dent. 

But the modern Egyptian fellaheen—the urban poor, the semi-educated youths from the country’s awful state universities, and a good slice of Egypt’s not insignificant middle class—have finally had enough. As is now well known thanks to the massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the country is a land of stark extremes. In Cairo, multimillion-dollar riverine apartments and lushly watered exurban golf courses built on sand look out upon an endless horizon of low-rise, nearly windowless brick apartment buildings, which are virtually uninhabitable during Egypt’s summer. These “homes” are stuffed with people who can see progress. (Cairo is a vibrant mess of a modern city.) Egypt’s acid-tongued poor can read. Sixty years of socialist-turned-capitalist dictatorship have given the Egyptian masses sufficient education to dream; it’s given the bright among the poor and the country’s growing middle class the means to aspire. Like much of the Middle East without oil, Egypt has been growing economically (around 6 percent per annum for the last five years). Using the standard set by Harvard’s late Samuel Huntington, Egypt economically is beyond the democratic “transition zone,” where a society’s complexities start to overload centralized authoritarian states and the common man’s dreams become tangible. 

Other convulsive social problems add to this volcanic resentment. Imagine a deeply conservative society where men cannot afford to marry, where male honor revolves around married life, around having a home where each man, no matter how low in class, can find peace, a little dominion, and bit of bliss. Envision 30-year-old jobless men who have never had sex with a woman, dream about it constantly, prowl tourist neighborhoods to put a hand on foreign flesh, and engage alone or with other men in sexual practices that the society officially loathes, and it’s astonishing that Egypt hasn’t suffered more spontaneous riots. Now combine government and social dysfunction with frustrated idealism—the Western ideas that have become common aspirations throughout the Middle East. The good side of Western modernity—its emphasis on civil rights, democracy, and the individual’s right to pursue a bit of happiness—has married up with Islam’s historic and often rebellious concern with justice, that rulers, too, have obligations to abide by the rules laid down by the Almighty. 

Hosni Mubarak and the other presidents-for-life, kings, and emirs of the Middle East have the bad luck to rule when the democratic wave has finally arrived. They have the bad luck to rule in an age when even Islamists are wrestling with the challenge and seductiveness of representative government. One hundred and eighty years ago when William Lane was living in Egypt, the average Egyptian, even a member of the local elite, had no conception that he had a right to participate in the government of the Nile Valley. This right belonged to Turkish-speaking Ottoman overlords, of whom Muhammad Ali, an Albanian, became the founder of an “Egyptian” dynasty. Today, a vast swath of Egyptians—secularists, Islamists, and everyone in between—really do believe that they have a right to choose their leaders. 

Both liberal and fundamentalist literature is full of this democratic ethos. The concepts of masuliya—that the people can be responsible for their own fate—and hurriya—“freedom,” an ancient term denoting a free man as opposed to a slave, which now moves ever closer to the Western understanding of inalienable rights of the individual against the state—are shaking the Middle East before our eyes. This may be a hard truth to swallow for American and European “realists,” who’ve never much appreciated the power of liberal Western ideas in third-world lands. (To read the writings of Zbigniew Brzezinski on democracy and the Middle East—to recall the attention that the media and Washington lavished on him during the dark days in Iraq—is to realize how intellectually parochial and morally flexible “realists” and Washington’s foreign-policy establishment can be.) But after Tunisia and Egypt and the irruptions elsewhere in the Arab world, this obdurateness may, just possibly, diminish. 

This doesn’t mean that democracy is going to succeed in Tunisia or Egypt or anywhere else where we are witnessing demonstrations. The power of Arab police states should never be underestimated. The only things that function relatively well in Arab lands are the internal security services and the armies, the great beneficiaries of modernization. But the chances of democracy progressing are better now than ever before. 

The movement has deeper intellectual roots than most in the West have thought. Arab liberals, especially those who are abroad in the safety of the West, have done a better job than many people have given them credit for of keeping a democratic debate alive. Arabs may not have a vibrant democracy anywhere in the Middle East (Iraq is, slowly, painfully, getting there), but they do have a virtual one, courtesy of the Internet and satellite Arabic television, which, even when controlled by a Wahhabi potentate in Qatar, has developed a remarkable jousting ethos, pitting expatriate and Iraqi liberal democrats against Islamists, and both against the mouthpieces of state power. Al-Jazeera is many unpleasant things, but it has shown with the uprising in Egypt and Tunisia that its heart and money are unquestionably with democrats in both countries. It may be too much to say that the Arab Revolt wouldn’t have happened without al-Jazeera, but the revolt’s speed owes much to al-Jazeera’s (and the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya’s) round-the-clock, intrepid reporting. 

By comparison with Iran—where populist powerhouses like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really do have a following among the poor, and the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ethos plays to an identity that isn’t completely dead among the faithful—the Arab dictatorships and kingdoms have little going for them. When Mubarak’s recently minted vice president, Omar Suleiman, the former head of Egyptian intelligence, went on television to explain why Egyptians should rally around him and trust President Mubarak’s plans for reform, Suleiman counted up the virtues of the current regime without ever alluding to an ideological basis for Mubarak’s government. 

He couldn’t. There isn’t one. He can pretend that Mubarak is the “father” of all Egyptians—but most Egyptians would deny that paternity. He can talk endlessly about the economics of tourism, which the Mubarak regime has certainly improved, at least for the Egyptians fortunate enough to work in the better-paying jobs in this industry. He can talk, surreally, about the social peace that the Mubarak regime supposedly bequeathed to Egypt. But he can, when it comes to an organizing principle of government, allude only to a shameful promise of “more” democracy, since the Egyptian regime cannot do without the pretense that it rules with the people’s consent. European fascists could proudly discard self-government as the enemy of the people’s will, united and expressed through the leader. But there isn’t an Arab secular dictator who could give that speech today without his minions laughing. From the left to the right, from the most devout to the most secular, Egyptians who want to appeal to their countrymen cannot openly gainsay democracy. 

What ought to be clear—but obviously isn’t, given the considerable Western trepidation that has greeted this rebellion, especially on the American right and in Israel—is that the West should want this revolution to continue, even if it allows the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood much greater influence. 

In so many ways, Egypt, like all Arab states, is an unrelentingly immature society, where conspiracy replaces reason, and the worst hatreds—especially anti-Semitism—are accepted without the slightest objection. Dinner parties with the Egyptian elite—let alone Muslim Brothers—can be so conspiracy-afflicted as to make Noam Chomsky look nice, introspective, and analytically evenhanded. This is what we can always expect from dictatorial societies. But there is an antidote.

Democracy—understood as a culture of respect for legitimate authority, free media, and individual freedom to work and to organize and assemble, not just the regular holding of elections—introduces competition into every corner of society. It creates an unending ethical battle between opposing sides. Anyone who has been to the Middle East for any time or attended one of the interminable conferences sponsored by Middle Eastern universities or state-sponsored think tanks knows that Arabs rarely engage in much debate at these events: They rarely try to convince the opposing side. To matter, debate must carry the possibility of practical consequences. What we call “rationality”—which Iran’s astonishing pro-democracy intellectuals, who’ve seized the moral and spiritual high ground from those who support theocracy, constantly seek in their own society—is the mental process that democracy fosters. The citizenry, while neither saintly nor immune to passions, is broadly speaking “rational” in the West because there is daily demand for and tangible benefit from ratiocination. This is not at all the case in the Muslim Middle East, where most men are powerless and most of society’s great concerns are decided behind closed doors, or as the Iranians more poetically put it, pusht-e pardeh, “behind the curtains.” 

What we want to see happen in Arab lands and in Iran is real intellectual competition—the starting point for healthy evolution. In particular, we want to see devout Sunni Muslims in Egypt try to figure out what exactly are “Islamic values.” We should like to see Islam’s classical schools of law revitalized, not thrown in the dustbin as they so often have been by the Middle East’s secularizing dictatorships. We want to see Malikis versus Hanafis versus Shafiis versus Hanbalis (especially the Hanbalis who are close to the Saudi interpretation of the faith) versus the Shiite Jafaris. We want to see them argue, as they did long ago in Sunni Islam’s formative legal period, that no one can represent or embody the divine will—that, as the liberal Egyptian Islamic jurist Khaled Abou El Fadl puts it, “human knowledge is separate and apart from Divine knowledge.” Man’s foremost moral and legal duty is thus to guard himself against error and ignorance, to resist the hubris that through fiqh, the study of the Holy Law, any man can exclusively know God’s order. Modern autocracies in the Middle East have suppressed such philosophical debates, as they have suppressed so much else. 

Parliaments, once they get going, have a way of looking upon themselves as supreme. Legislatures, not clerical schools, are likely to be the decisive forum for great ethical debates, especially among Sunni Muslims, who have no clerical hierarchy and are already subject to a wild proliferation of “fatwas,” juridical decisions, by clerics and would-be clerics who pointedly say that “your fatwa is no better than my fatwa.” It is likely in any Muslim society that goes democratic that what in the past was the domain of judges and scholars in religious schools—interpreting the Koran and assessing the relevance and value of the Traditions of the Prophet—will become the domain of legislatures, particularly in Sunni Arab lands where the organization, prestige, and soft power of the clergy is vastly less than among Shiites. In Egypt, there will be no Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose awesome charisma gutted the Iranian revolution of its liberal democratic and secular impulses. Parliamentary interest in religious/ethical issues could fuel a healthy give-and-take between elected representatives of the people and the faith’s traditional guardians—the type of organic growth in debate about law, society, and religion that has been all but absent during the pan-Arab and Arab-nationalist era since World War II. 

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood released a political platform, then withdrew it, and then unofficially rereleased it in 2007. This was the first platform in its history, and it provoked considerable controversy among members and supporters of the Brotherhood. It provoked even more furor in the Coptic Christian community, because the first draft contained references to a religious oversight body that would judge the content of legislation passed by parliament. The idea was withdrawn. Although Cairo is the seat of the Al-Azhar religious establishment, the most prestigious in the Sunni world, the Brotherhood does not enjoy the imprimatur of Al-Azhar. The two have often had a tense, competitive relationship. How the Brotherhood would—if it actually could—organize a supervisory body for the Egyptian legislature is as unclear now as it was before the Brotherhood first published its platform. This shows that democracy is an acquired taste and that not all members of the Brotherhood want to let Egyptians have full rein. A powerful strain in Islamic thought teaches that humans have many bad impulses, especially libidinous ones, and they need to be constrained by the law. 

Through the democratic process, the Egyptian Brothers, like all Arab fundamentalists, will get to discover “Islamic values.” If the majority of Egyptian Muslims repeatedly votes one way, it is a good bet that the Brother-hood, always sensitive to public opinion, will find that commendable Muslim values overlap rather well with Egyptian voting patterns. The Sunni clergy’s historically conservative ethos has usually bent to authority but also, and especially, to popular consensus. The medieval clergy strongly disliked Sufism, for instance, but reluctantly accepted it when it became too popular to condemn and once the great theologian Al-Ghazali successfully blended it into orthodoxy. Sufism in its many medieval manifestations was often wildly heterodox, pushing the envelope of recognizable Islamic practice and belief. 

Incorporating democracy into “traditional” Islamic dogma, the type worshipped by many Muslim Brothers, will likely be easier than the slow acceptance of Sufism, which still causes many clerics to recoil. If Arab Muslims want to vote for their leaders—and the evidence in the highly Westernized and urbanized countries (Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Iraq) is that they do—the clerical establishment and the Muslim Brothers are unlikely to fight a rearguard action against it. It’s possible that Egyptian Muslims will vote en masse for the Brotherhood because they like the organization’s profound cultural conservatism, but if this is so, it’s most likely that Egyptians, like the once-devout Iranian revolutionaries who now back reform, will prove highly variable in their loyalty. 

The Brotherhood will have to survive constant competition from Egypt’s liberals and secular nationalists, who have an older history in the country than the Islamists. They will have to survive the competition of devout Muslims who bristle at the Brotherhood’s heavy-handedness. We should not assume that devout Muslims will be less subject to faction than their secular brethren. It’s possible that the Muslim Brotherhood could pull off a military coup, but it seems unlikely. Their paramilitary forces are pathetic compared with the Egyptian Army, which has so far not shown itself, even in the lower ranks, to be blindly enamored of the Brotherhood. The organization would likely confront an enormous social, and quite possibly a military, backlash if it attempted to abort free elections once they got going. 

The key here is elections soon—September is way too late. Periodic elections are what most powerfully builds democratic institutions and culture. As the French scholar Olivier Roy has written, “If we had to wait for everyone to become a democrat before creating democracy, France would still be a monarchy.” It’s now plain that Mubarak’s regime has no intention of transferring power beyond his inner circle. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the senior ranks of the military are siding with Mubarak in his ever more violent attempts to squash the protests. For better or worse, what’s happening in Egypt will continue to reverberate throughout the region. If Washington and Jerusalem are dreading an empowered Muslim Brotherhood, a vicious clampdown on the democratic rebellion will surely make the next irruption much more radical and violent. 

A democratizing Egypt could change the face of the Middle East. Political evolution could start. No doubt the American and Israeli embrace of Mubarak’s detested dictatorship will carry a price, perhaps a stiff price, in a democratic Egypt. It is the cost of our having sought to build stability on an authoritarian illusion. But for Mubarak’s regime, or a military successor, to hold on would be a catastrophe for the United States. All of the cancers of the region—especially Islamic militancy—would get worse. 

President Obama has only one trump to play—the American subventions to the Egyptian armed forces. If the violence continues, we need to tell the Egyptian military that we will immediately cut off all military aid. We can say this in private, but if (when) the army ignores Washington, we should say it in public, giving Cairo 24 hours. By so doing, President Obama would not be choosing the next Egyptian leader, but he would be -saying unequivocally that U.S.-Egyptian relations henceforth are based on democratic values. “Realists” may object. But the realists have been egregiously wrong for decades. 

The promise of democracy for Muslims offers something historically unparalleled. For the first time since the early caliphs, it holds out the possibility of an organic, reciprocal relationship between leaders and their communities. It could begin to undermine Islam’s long history of rebellious religious violence. It could give the Middle East’s Muslims some of the elemental, nonthreatening, unflappable pride and self-confidence that Americans, the oldest modern democrats, have in spades. In an age of proliferating nuclear weapons, that would be a very good thing for believers and nonbelievers alike. It could also give back to Egypt what William Lane, and so many others, found to be the Egyptians’ most sterling quality—their “cheerfulness.”

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of the forthcoming The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).

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