The protests currently gripping Egypt caught everyone, including President Barack Obama, off guard. While it's been good to see the Obama administration coming out more strongly behind the protesters' democratic demands, warning longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak away from a violent crackdown, and having no less than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for an orderly “transition to democracy” (a welcome sign the administration is thinking seriously about a post-Mubarak Egypt) -- it is imperative the administration provide a more robust and strategic response to these events, given what a new Egypt could portend for the entire region.
President Obama himself provided a blueprint for this new approach in his June 2009 Cairo speech. Many progressives, this writer included, were thrilled by what we saw as that speech's promise to move away from a Middle East policy in which political freedom was subordinated to the perceived imperatives of counter-radicalism, and toward a more measured opening of political systems to greater participation and accountability. Progressives have likewise been disappointed at the lack of follow-through. These continuing uprisings offer the president an opportunity to make good on that promise.
A significant element of the Cairo speech was what many saw as Obama's message to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, members of whose affiliated parliamentary bloc (the party itself is officially outlawed) were in attendance, at the administration's request, and to Islamists across the region.
"America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments -- provided they govern with respect for all their people," Obama said. He then laid down this marker:
There are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.
Even though the Brotherhood has not been very much in evidence in the protests, by most accounts, it remains the best-organized political opposition in Egypt, a situation carefully maintained by Mubarak himself to justify his continued rule by presenting himself and his regime as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.
Founded in Egypt in 1928 by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna as a populist social movement aimed at returning Egyptian society to its Islamic roots, the Muslim Brotherhood is the seminal Islamist organization in the Middle East, influencing groups from al-Qaeda to Iraq's Shia Da'wa Party. While it supported the Egyptian revolution of 1952, the organization soon fell out with the new government of Gamal Abdel Nasser. An attempt on Nasser’s life by a member of the Brotherhood in 1954 led to the organization being outlawed and to a prolonged period of repression.
Though still officially outlawed, the Brotherhood has continued to play a role in Egyptian society as a social-religious movement, eschewing violence and condemning terrorism. Its affiliated representatives scored significant victories in Egypt's 2005 parliamentary elections, though they lost many of those seats in the most recent elections, whose fairness was heavily criticized.
Concern over the Brotherhood's influence in any new government is palpable in Washington. Conservative Fox News has, unsurprisingly, been covering the events almost exclusively through the lens of a looming Iranian-style radical Islamist takeover of Egypt. Appearing on Thursday, former ambassador John Bolton gave voice to these fears. "I think the question is whether and to what extent the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islamists have infiltrated the leadership," Bolton said. "I don't think we have evidence yet that these demonstrations are necessarily about democracy."
National Review's Victor Davis Hanson similarly warned against Islamist influence. "Islamists may eventually hijack the popular outrage against authoritarianism,” Hanson wrote, but "there will probably be no such popular violent unrest in Iraq where an elected and popular government is legitimate."
The evocation of Iraq here is ironic, given that the Iraq War helped create the region's first Islamist-dominated government. Though undertaken as part of an effort to stem the growing influence of political Islam, the Iraq War resulted in a government dominated by Shia Islamist parties like the Da'wa, the Sadrists, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). Notwithstanding the rather humorous attempts of some neocons to argue that the Egyptian protests vindicate the Iraq War, the one area in which the new Iraq could plausibly provide a model for the region -- enabling Islamists to govern -- is one that the war's architects absolutely did not intend.
The inability to develop a coherent approach to the fact of political Islam was a big part of what discombobulated the Bush administration's "freedom agenda." Both the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas -- the Brotherhood’s Palestinian affiliate -- effectively exploited the U.S. war in Iraq for political profit, achieving substantial electoral gains in 2005 and 2006. The Bush administration responded by reversing its tentative steps toward democracy promotion in the region, standing by as Mubarak once again jailed opposition figures, and supporting a disastrous coup attempt in Palestine that resulted in Hamas taking over the Gaza Strip.
Getting our approach to Islamism right will be a key element of our relationship with the changing region. "Political Islam is the single most active political force in the Middle East today," wrote the Brookings Institution's Shadi Hamid in a January 2010 report. While noting the variety of approaches and doctrines cast together under the heading "Islamist," according to Hamid, "The future of relations between Western nations and the Middle East may be largely determined by the degree to which the former engage non-violent Islamist parties in a broad dialogue over shared interests and objectives."
Given the amount of right-wing energy being spent scaring Americans about extremist Muslims under their beds and "creeping Sharia" phantoms in their closets, such a shift in posture toward engaging with Islamists is far easier talked about than implemented. But this is a policy fight that the administration must take on. Casting "Islamism" writ large as inherently violent and irretrievably hostile to democracy is not only incorrect; it also strategically short-sighted. It deprives us of a potentially valuable tool for isolating and dividing violent Islamists like al-Qaeda, with whom we have nothing to talk about, from nonviolent ones like the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom we very possibly do.
The events in Egypt should be seen as more than simply a moment of crisis for a U.S. ally -- they represent an opportunity to begin to rethink America's relationship with the peoples of the Middle East. Political Islam will continue to play a part in that relationship, like it or not. President Obama seemed to recognize this in his 2009 Cairo speech, and it's time that he acts upon it. To be clear: We should be under no illusions that Islamists are merely liberals in disguise. They hold many views that many Americans (and many Egyptians) find retrograde, but they are a fact of political life in the Middle East. The U.S. doesn't have the ability to make Islamism disappear, but we can choose to help develop pluralistic systems that can accommodate religiously oriented political actors while securing all peoples' basic rights. If we're serious about democracy, there's no other option.