The Skeptics

Egypt’s Pragmatic Islamists

Elements of the 1978 Camp David Accords are in dispute, but such changes will not lead ineluctably to war. The more interesting questions about the rise of Egypt’s Islamists lie in the domestic arena: Will the Brotherhood make good pluralists? Will religious liberty be deemed apostasy or an individual human right? Will a body of Islamic scholars be established to arbitrate sharia law? Part of the problem is that the Brotherhood members talk a good game about the principles of “liberty and equalityand economic freedom, but they are also smooth political operators. They have repeatedly downplayed their popularity to avoid frightening Egypt’s liberals and foreign observers. In fact, knowing that Turkey—not Iran—is the republican system that many in Egypt want to emulate, the Brotherhood ran a campaign claiming that their party was the Turkish model. It’s not. Al-Wasat, a Turkish-style Brotherhood offshoot, is “the most moderate on the Islamist spectrum,” observes my friend and former colleague Omar Hossino, who studies Egypt and hails from Syria. Al-Wasat got 2 percent (nine seats) of the vote.

So, what’s next? Despite the gathering clouds of conservatism, shifting alliances within Egypt will broaden the culture of political debate. In this respect, contrary to received opinion, the Brotherhood loathes what it considers the destructive excesses of individualism and the oppressive forces of secularism. Post-modern political correctness should not inhibit us from addressing that thorny issue. It matters tremendously. Alongside the military, the winners in Egypt’s parliament will help write the country’s new constitution. To pass it needs a two-thirds vote in parliament, which the FJP could have if it formed a coalition with al-Nour. Recently, however, the ultraconservative Salafis, who vilify secularism, have reached out to liberal parties to form a minority coalition against what they see as the Brotherhood’s near monopoly on power. As academics Philpott, Shah and Toft argue here:

The choice facing Arab Spring nations at this point isn’t one between religion and secular government. It’s a choice between democracy that includes all parties—religious and secular—and a regime that imposes a rigid and exclusive secularism.

That distinction is important. In his in-depth historical survey, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, the late academic Richard P. Mitchell writes that although early adherents to the Brotherhood believed their ruler must be “knowledgeable in Muslim jurisprudence, just, pious, and virtuous.” They also believed that “‘the nation,’ ‘the people,’ in fact, are the source of all the ruler’s authority: The nation alone is the source of power; bowing to its will is a religious obligation.”

If in fact Egypt’s Islamists believe in the “social contract,” in which rulers are the chosen agents of the people, the concern among many in the West that Egypt’s Islamists are inherently incompatible with democracy misses the point. Democracy in an Egyptian context will undoubtedly produce something different; for religious movements like the Brotherhood their primary political focus is the maintenance of Islam. After generations of being oppressed under secular tyrannies, the Brotherhood’s strong defense of Islam through civic activism has resonated with the majority of Egyptians.

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