Monthly Archives: February 2011

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood

 I’m a pretty strong democracy advocate. I have little doubt in my soul and in whatever intellectual weight I can bring to the problem, that democratic processes are superior to others. I accept that Francis Fukayama was correct, in his book The End of History, that the natural evolution of all political states is toward democracy and market economies. Democracy contains its own moral legitimacy by requiring that the governed sanction governance. This does not ensure quality or competent government, for the governed can surely be inept, but it does guarantee civil legitimacy. 

Still, one cannot be naïve about these things because democracy requires advanced citizenship and a democratic” state of mind” as well as democratic processes. By” state of mind” I mean the attitudes and values of democracy must be internalized by the populace. The populace must understand and accept the inherent values of equality and due process that underscore democratic theory. We can easily cite the cases (Hamas) where democracy was reduced to elections and those elections produced undemocratic governments. The United States is often described as” exceptional” partly because its democracy evolved slowly and accumulated laws and traditions that were honed in a justice system shaped itself from democratic principles.

This is what worries me about the incipient Egyptian democracy. The Muslim brotherhood as a political party will have, and deserves in accordance with democratic principles, a legitimate voice. But the brotherhood contains its own rejections of democracy. I’m reminded of the argument made by Amy Chua in World on Fire that showed how free markets and democratic processes unleashed ethnic demagoguery and more destruction than construction. She, of course, was talking about the particular case of market-dominant minorities; that is ethnic minorities who for a variety of reasons had concentrated wealth. This wealth by minorities caused tremendous ethnonationalism and frustrated indigenous majorities. Her analysis, which is not my chief concern here, demonstrates how democracy and market economies can backfire and cause anger, humiliation, and violence. 

I fear something similar in Egypt. The Muslim brotherhood has been outlawed and controlled in Egypt by an authoritarian system. But they played an important role in the revolution and will expect to be rewarded. It’s possible that Egypt will open up the door to theocracy and a return to a form of Middle Eastern dark ages. 

 The Brotherhood is the forerunner of Hamas and Hezbollah and responsible for the assassination of Sadat in 1981. It is possible to imagine them as a monstrous organization steeped in a distorted tribal mentality that has fire in its breath and blood on its hands. Many people, including myself, yearn for an orderly transition with democratic outcomes. We had dreams in the early days of the protest that some Mandela would step forward, take the nation by the hand and lead it into the future. But it’s more likely that we have handed over Egypt to the Muslim Brotherhood. The brotherhood has remained coy. They have kept quiet and shunned the violence. They are not stupid, they know that such rhetoric would be very counterproductive at this point in time. 

Does anyone really think that a government that includes the Brotherhood will maintain its peace agreement with Israel? ElBaradei has already made statements that placed the peace agreement in jeopardy. In some ways Egypt is moving from a political system in which it would be easier to transition to democracy than one which contains serious Islamic ideology. Ideological systems like socialism or Islam are very ingrained and do not change easily. Regimes governed by raw authoritarianism oppress their people and plant the seeds of revolution. These uprisings often lead to democratic changes or calls for more freedom and political rights. This is not so in ideological regimes. 

Hard as it is to imagine, the Shah of Iran was a paragon of enlightenment compared to the mullahs governing Iran. The Muslim brotherhood is the most organized political force in Egypt: it represents the genuine religious interests of much of the population and, like it or not, simply cannot be ignored. It is the organizational and ideological wellspring of the global Islamist movement. And although Egypt is different from Iran, and will not become a thoroughly theocratic state, the Muslim brotherhood will be empowered. There are reasons to be afraid, very afraid.

Do you Really Want Islam Running the State’s Waste Management?

There is much talk these days about democratization in Egypt. But even the most optimistic among us realize that this will be a long and slow process. Nevertheless, the seeds for future democracy are currently being planted by an intellectual engagement from the youth of Egypt. But despite the attractiveness of the idea of democracy around the world, it remains a contested term. This is particularly true in the Islamic world. In other words, what would an Islamic democracy look like? What components of the state do you want run by Islam and which by pragmatic democratic means?

For successful democratization of Egypt Islamic groups must be part of the political process. Even more specifically democratization should align itself with Islam as much as possible otherwise it will not succeed. This begs the question about which aspects of Islam are most amenable to democratization and which are not.

Democracies struggle if they are not run well. Egypt has a staggering amount of work ahead and for now we can only point to numerous challenges including creating a constitution, developing strong institutions, solving problems of leadership, and creating communicative and associational freedoms. And all of these must be consistent with basic principles of Islam. This will be a challenge because, in general, there is not a strict separation of the temporal from the spiritual in Islamic culture. The importance of separation of church and state as we know it in the West is not so apparent to Muslim culture. And if we lecture Muslim leaders on the importance of secular governance they will point properly to the failures of ideologies like nationalism, socialism, and secularism to deliver good governance.

But mainstream Islam can be politicized because Islam is a religion that values the mundane; in other words, the everyday activities of life, such as running the Department of Waste Management, are regarded as a form of piety. This is an important issue in political Islam because it can help teach accountability on earth. The entanglement of religion and politics can be a positive thing if the spirituality of religion is used to advance justice and equality. Islam does not stipulate a required political structure, but it does foster a fair and equitable political order.

In the West we argue that the privatization of religion is necessary to keep democratic governance fair. But this won’t hold for Muslim cultures. They want something we might call “religious democracy.” It’s possible that the idea of a religious democracy is completely untenable, a contradiction in terms. And there are numerous examples where this would be true of Islamic interpretations. We would not expect, for example, democracy to take root in a country like Iran because Iran has no liberal understanding of the separation of church and state. But other models are possible. Islam in the political realm can embolden people sufficiently that the public demands competence and accountability, and can be removed when necessary.

I’m arguing for the possibility of a native democratic paradigm that is realistic. Turkey is typically cited as a country that is both Muslim and democratic. And although it is a good model of religion and democracy it remains flawed and still too dependent on the military for stability. In Egypt, the state will remain neutral in matters of faith and religious structures must place the common good ahead of scriptural interpretation.

Islam and democracy will coexist in Egypt if Islam respects its classical heritage of peace and harmony instead of human claims to represent the word of God. Islam’s concern with justice can serve as a foundation for a well running civil society. Still, a watchful eye must be kept on the lookout for any attempt to deprive people of the civil good on the basis of religiosity. A native Islam and democracy project must include the concept of “the citizen.”

The key to a native Islam and democracy is to recognize the relationship between the religion and the well-being of all citizens and the nation-state. The ethical politics of Islam can serve as a guide for the good of all humans. Only then can Islam both serve the spiritual needs of the community and properly manage the state bureaucracies.

What Was Hiding in the Subterranean Electronic Politics of Egypt?

 Speculating about the role of new social media and political activity or revolution has become a popular pastime. Twitter and Facebook in some circles are getting credit for changing the world. Others consider them minor technological toys that do little more than assist with organizing. There is a debate about whether social media can stimulate democracy or end up as a tool of authoritarian regimes. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

 In the cheering section is Clay Shirky, writing in Foreign Affairs, arguing that social media are a new form of power and involved in influencing political movements all over the world. It is simply impossible to talk about social upheaval in Tehran, Tunisia, Egypt, China, Moldova, or organized protests against the G8 without talking about user-generated content on cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, text messaging, email, or photo sharing. Shirkey makes the important and defensible point that new media make new public spheres possible. That is, the opportunity for discussion and politically engaged activity is realized by new media and this helps democratize the environment. It makes it possible for people to communicate and coordinate such that they have a shared understanding of events.

 On the back bench lobbing objections is Evgeny Morozov claiming that we are all deluded into believing that the Net is so powerful and that it too will be subject to power and end up of more use to autocrats than democrats.

 Somewhere in the middle of all this is Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker, that social media only make for different sorts of ties between people. New media increase the frequency and speed of what are called” weak ties” or connections between people that are somewhat shallow, spontaneous, and fleeting. It is simply fast and easy to” friend” someone on Facebook and that’s why people have so many Facebook friends but not” real” friends. Strong ties are relationships that are deep and critical, and have significant potential for commitment.

 I retrieved from Wikileaks a copy of a briefing (reference ID 09CAIRO544) about bloggers broadening their discourse. The briefing from 2009 warned that Egypt’s bloggers were playing an increasingly important role in broadening the scope of the acceptable political communication. Bloggers’ discussion of sensitive issues such as the military and politics represented a significant change from the previous five years and had influenced society.

As recently as 2009 the cable noted that a more open atmosphere had been created. Bloggers were influencing independent media to break important news and cover previously ignored or forbidden topics. One personal rights activist in Egypt stated that the youth were able to view their views about social and political issues in ways they never could before. Free speech tends to produce free speech, and the accumulation of effects from blogs in Egypt is apparent.

 Social media are important and have significantly changed the political environment in many countries. They are a platform for supporting a connected public sphere that creates public will and a shared sense of perspective. All historical media have had social effects and altered their environments but new user-generated content media are particularly potent. Activists and political entrepreneurs will try to effect change by using social media, but their ability to target change and shape the future is limited. 

Just as we would not credit a city park for provoking revolution just because people gathered there, we also cannot credit social media for creating revolution or change. Still, the park like its electronic counterpart is a necessary arena for facilitating activity. We have to remember that Egypt is in the bottom half of countries with Internet connectivity rates. About 20% of the Egyptian population uses the Internet on a regular basis. So it is not availability alone that matters because most Egyptians do not have access to the Internet. 

Social media provide meeting platforms, weak ties, public spheres, and broaden the discourse. These can be important or not depending on the other political conditions. Remember that six months ago no one would’ve imagined the changes in Egypt that took place in 18 days. We didn’t know what was going on in the subterranean electronic levels of the political culture. And right now, in the subterranean levels of some other political culture, there is something else going on that we do not realize is coming.

Difficulties for Israel

A number of issues are beginning to intersect and result in instability for Israel. From an Israeli standpoint, political conditions are fraying at the edges and challenging Israel’s ability to manage all of these difficulties: Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy military, increases its control and influence in Lebanon and maintains an even more prominent position in the government thereby undercutting efforts to consolidate Lebanon’s strands of democracy. Iran of course is always hovering overhead building bombs and threatening Israel’s existence. Hamas continues to make gains in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s relationship with Turkey is more than frayed; it is seriously damaged and in need of repair. Al Jazeera’s revelations about the negotiating process has damaged Fatah’s credibility and directed more positive attention toward Hamas.

 And clearly the situation in Egypt does not bode well for Israel’s future relationship with Egypt. There are many questions to be answered. Remember there was a time when in 1979 we thought a government run by Islamists was laughable and impossible. There was a time when peace activists and human rights workers thought that there could be nothing worse than the Shah of Iran. I am certainly not suggesting that change in Egypt is not morally and politically inevitable, but it remains the case that Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel has been very stabilizing and could be a casualty of revolution in Egypt.

 Let’s look at a few outcome possibilities in Egypt and speculate about their implications for Israel. First, an Egyptian leader to emerge could be Mohamed ElBaradei who has international standing. ElBaradei poses problems for Israel. He is forming a coalition with the Muslim brotherhood and could increase their standing and the strength of their voice. ElBaradei’s anti-Israel tendencies are well enough known. He has called the Gaza Strip a large prison and sided with Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan who has been harshly critical of Israel. ElBaradei may not share Muslim brotherhood ideology but he will use them to bolster his own position and thus set the conditions for more oppositional relationship with Israel and the United States.

 Second, it remains unclear whether or not change in Egypt will result in a liberal democracy. Not only will the Muslim brotherhood be strengthened but Egypt’s history of authoritarianism will not be replaced easily. Egypt’s civil society is undeveloped and weak and it could take a generation to weed out corruption and ineptitude. Hernando de Soto writing in the Wall Street Journal cited the example that to do business in Egypt requires dealing with 56 government agencies, countless inspections, and corruption. Such a civil society and business conditions cannot prosper. None of this bodes well for Israel because it increases instability.

 Third. Israel has been very troubled by the US response to the protests. After siding with some of Israel’s enemies–the Sauds and Hashemites–the US is increasingly seen as an unreliable partner. This means Israel should be even more stubborn about giving up territory that may have defensive implications in exchange for American security guarantees.

 Finally, building democracies is difficult business and it’s easy to bungle it. Look at what happened in 2006 when Condoleezza Rice, and her supposedly stellar international relations credentials, pressured people for elections in Gaza. There was always the naïve belief that groups like Hamas would moderate after they were in power, or that they would participate in a fair democratic process. We still know nothing about the skills and intentions of the protesters. Elections in Gaza resulted in violence and serious trouble for Israel and elections in Egypt, even legitimate elections, could cause Israel trouble.

Is Egypt part of the third wave of democracy


The world is waiting and watching events in Egypt. Democracy advocates are claiming that we are witnessing the transition to democracy. In the last 25 years there has been a change in the political environment represented by increased democratization. Crumbling authoritarian regimes in Europe,  defeated military dictatorships in Latin America, as well as liberalizing tendencies in the Middle East have all been associated with what Samuel
Huntington called the third-wave of democracy.

Carothers, writing in the Journal of Democracy in 2002, explained that the conditions of the third wave were transformed into a more general paradigm for understanding democratization. This was called the transition paradigm. The transition paradigm is characterized by five key assumptions: (1) the country is moving away from dictatorial rule, (2) that the change comes in stages, (3) that genuine elections are what most confer legitimacy, (4) economics and political history are not major influences on the process of democratization, and (5) the democracy project is being built on a coherent and functioning state.

Yet, I do not believe that this transition paradigm is very descriptive of what is going on in Egypt. True enough, it looks as if Egypt is shedding authoritarian rule and one might even note that the change is coming in stages (an arguable point). But as a whole the changes in Egypt fail to match many of the assumptions of the transition paradigm. Or, at least we should wait and see. It is too early to tell if Egypt is truly transitioning to democracy. Let me elaborate.

First, there have been more than a few incidents of countries moving away from authoritarian rule when in fact they never made a transition to democracy. We have been too quick to make this assumption. There was a time when the United States described the Congo and Somalia as on a path to democratization. Egypt could yet replace one system of authority with another, or end up with increased illiberal Islamic rule.

Second, we have no reliable sense in which Egypt is experiencing stages of democratization. Other countries such as South Korea and Mexico did not go through a particular process. Egypt’s political turmoil has erupted unexpectedly, except for the argument that change in Tunisia had a contagious effect, and did not seem to follow a sequence such as settling Constitutional issues or consolidating civil society. The idea that democratization unfolds as a rational process is tenuous. Most change is chaotic, jerky, and moves forward and backward in an irregular manner.

The folly of equating elections with democratization, or as the ultimate expression of democratization, is most troublesome. It is true that Egypt’s elections have been sufficiently controlled and do not measure up as democratic elections, but this is a minor point in the whole process. Sometimes political cultures experience genuine elections but political participation in general and governmental accountability is poor. And it is
certainly possible that elections can result in illiberal authoritarian rule rooted in religion or ideology.

Fourth, there is a tendency to overweight single democratic acts such as vigorous protests and overlook structural conditions that help fashion political outcomes. Successful cases of democratization often display economic well-being, a history of political activity, and a civil society that has outlets for conflict resolution. Egypt has a large Islamic brotherhood party in the region and only a limited experience with democratic political activity. Although the elites are educated and economically comfortable there is a significant portion of the society that is struggling and has little confidence in political institutions.

Finally, many of the successful transitions to democracy during the third-wave were in political polities that were unstable. This poses challenges but also has advantages because when state – building from scratch it is possible to avoid intractable structures of power and wealth that are difficult to eliminate. But this is not the case for Egypt which is
an intact state that has entrenched power structures. Egypt will have to encourage decentralization and strengthen legislative and judicial branches of government after the protesters go home. This will be difficult and a clear barrier to the potential for democratization.

I do not know what will happen in the weeks and months to come but I do know that assessing the political context in Egypt is difficult business. The transition model to democracy is a sophisticated framework even though it applies sporadically to various countries. I share a hope with fellow democracy advocates that Egypt will evolve toward a market economy and liberal democracy. What I am not sure about is the path that it will take.

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