Op-Ed: The Illusion of Egyptian Democracy
There seem to be three generic responses to the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt.
The first is to herald the triumph of Egyptian democracy and ignore the Brotherhood’s goals of destroying Israel and reestablishing the Caliphate.
The second is to fantasize that the Brotherhood was somehow moderated by its participation in the political process despite its adherence to jihadist aims.
The third is to engage in cultural relativism and proclaim that even an election assuring a repressive Islamist regime is a democratic victory because it represents the Muslim popular will, and to insist that Morsi’s election be validated by those who find the Brotherhood’s doctrinal supremacism abhorrent.
These positions are either naïve or delusional, and are the products of left-wing pretense, mainstream ignorance and the failure to grasp the totalitarian goals of the Islamist agenda and global jihad. Ironically, liberals who urge acceptance of the Muslim Brotherhood would not likewise countenance the ascendancy of right-wing dictators who consolidate power through the electoral process (though historically they’ve had no problem excusing or even romanticizing despots on the left – from Lenin and Stalin to Hugo Chavez).
Clearly, political progressives have a soft spot for socialist or communist regimes they believe represent the fulfillment of leftist ideals, but they would seem to have no ideological kinship with Islamists. Whereas the left professes a deep and abiding commitment to humanist and egalitarian values (as long as the expression of those values does not conflict with its political agenda), Islamist doctrine is inconsistent with those values and contrary to the rights and freedoms that characterize western democracy.
Despite its incompatibility with liberal principles and ideals, Islamism is often regarded with left-wing approval as a reaction to past European and American colonialism and as a declaration of aboriginal rights.
In equating Islamism with movements of national liberation, however, the left ignores Islam’s history of conquest, subjugation and colonialism throughout the Mideast, Europe and Asia. The spread of Islam through jihad involved the conquest of indigenous peoples and the usurpation of their lands, and therefore constituted the kind of colonialist excess that the left claims to reject.
The supremacist goals of doctrinal Islam are irrelevant to its western enablers, whose embrace of extremist movements seems more a projection of their own hostility for normative cultural values, their inability to tolerate dissenting political viewpoints, and their repudiation of American exceptionalism.
The same pretensions used to legitimize Muslim extremism helped shape the media’s coverage of the upheaval that swept through the Arab world last year. They also discouraged any mention of the antisemitic, anti-Western and anti-democratic sentiments that were unapologetically expressed by the actors in that political Passion play.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the slanted coverage of the Arab Spring in Egypt, which was not really orchestrated by the liberal, democratic crusaders profiled by CNN, Reuters and the rest of the mainstream media, but rather by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist opportunists.
Though the demonstrations in Tahrir Square ended with the Egyptian military still in power and the Brotherhood positioned to prevail in the elections to follow, the western press clung to its fanciful narrative of the “Facebook Revolution.” The fairy tale, however, was inconsistent with the reality on the ground.
And the media’s blindness continued with its glowing descriptions of the subsequent elections as a democratic triumph, despite the chill on individual rights, freedoms and liberties – not to mention the widespread violence against the Coptic community – which accompanied the Brotherhood’s electoral victory.
Nobody familiar with its origins could believe the Muslim Brotherhood would ever champion democracy or safeguard the rights of minorities. Founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a Nazi admirer and strident antisemite, the Brotherhood from its earliest days has advocated jihad against “infidels.” Its list of enemies includes Jews, Coptic Christians and the West, it advocates Israel’s destruction, and it gives assistance to related terror groups that often act as its proxies.
Osama bin Laden belonged to the Brotherhood before founding al-Qaeda, as did Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the founder Islamic Jihad before its merger with bin Laden’s group. And then there is Hamas, which holds itself out as the Brotherhood’s military wing in Gaza. The charters of these related groups advocate violence, jihad and genocide, and all are supported by the Brotherhood in one way or another
Despite President Obama’s attempts to rehabilitate the official U.S. government view of the Brotherhood, the organization undeniably supports terrorism and openly lists among its primary goals the imposition of Sharia and restoration of the Caliphate. Since assuming power in Egypt, it has discriminated and incited violence against religious minorities, and has made statements casting doubt on Egypt’s intention to honor the Camp David Accords. Consistent with these statements, the Egyptian military has moved tanks into Sinai without Israel’s consent as required under the treaty, and Hamas has beefed up its own presence on the Sinai border and beyond.
In addition, Hamas has launched Grad rockets into Israel from Sinai on orders from the Muslim Brotherhood, raising the risk that Israeli retaliation to future attacks could extend into Egyptian territory. The threat is taken seriously by Israelis, many of whom fear war on their southern border for the first time since 1973.
To claim that the Brotherhood in Egypt (or for that matter Hamas in Gaza) is democratic simply because it won an election betrays an ignorance regarding the organization’s history and doctrine, as well as the essence of western democracy itself.
However, a sound understanding of democratic principles is essential for recognizing why the election of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, or any other Islamist organization, is a threat not only to Israel but to democracy in general, which perhaps is best exemplified by the American system of government.
American democracy is a hybrid combining republican ideals, such as respect for individual rights and liberties, with democratic institutions, including most notably an open electoral system. The inalienability of individual rights is perhaps the defining characteristic of a constitutional republic, while free and fair elections are the hallmarks of democracy. Thus, the rights and liberties most closely identified with American democracy, including the freedoms of speech and religion, are actually features of constitutional republicanism, not classical democracy.
Pure democracy, in fact, does not recognize the sanctity of individual rights. Rather, in a pure democracy the rights of the individual must yield to the will of the majority and thus can never be guaranteed. For this reason, America’s founding fathers were extremely wary of pure democracy, in which the rights set forth in the U.S. Constitution could be overridden by a dictatorial majority.
That the United States was established as a republic based on constitutional principles is clearly reflected in Article 4, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, which states: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government.”
The founding fathers were painfully aware that unrestrained democracy could degenerate into mob rule and that without clearly delineated constitutional parameters the government would descend into anarchy. As observed by James Madison in the Federalist Papers: “[D]emocracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” (Federalist No. 10, November 22, 1787.)
Republicanism was the ideal that drove the American Revolution. In asserting their independence from England, the early Americans were motivated by the desire for liberty, the belief that citizens bore independent responsibility for their civic duties, and the rejection of heritable power in favor of the collective sovereignty of the people. The republican ideal found expression in both the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787, and reflected an inherent suspicion of pure democracy that predated America’s birth by several thousand years.
Indeed, the Greek philosopher Plato believed that democratic self-government was unsustainable because ordinary citizens lacked the skills to govern themselves or to manage relations with foreign nations. He also had misgivings regarding the quality of representative government chosen by the public because he believed that common people were most likely to endorse politicians who could seduce them with flattery and blandishments instead of the ability to govern. In
“The Republic,” Plato analogized democracy to a ship whose captain is a poor navigator, and whose sailors all believe they have the right to steer despite having no navigational skills themselves. Aristotle expressed similar reservations in his treatise “Politics.”
Similar to the ancient Greek philosophers, America’s founders were concerned that democracy without appropriate constraints could become dictatorial. Thus, they created a system incorporating elements of republicanism and democracy anchored by checks and balances between the different branches of government. American democracy is distinguished today by its ability to maintain: (a) institutional respect for individual liberties through constitutional imperative; and (b) the integrity of representative government through free and fair elections.
If the American system provides the measuring stick for evaluating Morsi’s election and its aftermath, it becomes clear that the Egyptian government falls well below any acceptable standard.
Though the government in Egypt has the veneer of democracy because it was elected, one could argue that the elections were neither free nor fair in the western sense because the only parties sufficiently empowered to mount a serious campaign were the Islamists. In the parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Islamist Al-Nour party took the majority of the popular vote. In the presidential election, Morsi prevailed over Ahmed Shafiq, the former prime minister under Hosni Mubarak, although some question remained as to whether the military actually would cede the reins of power.
If democratic success in Egypt can be evaluated by the degree to which it gives voice to the people, then popular attitudes must be examined to determine whether they are consistent with the freedoms that have come to define western democracy. And in this regard Egypt receives low marks. According to a Gallup survey conducted around the time of the Tahrir Square demonstrations, 64 percent of those polled favored the imposition of Sharia, while a large percentage of those who claimed not to still desired a government guided by Islamic law. Consistently, a majority of Egyptians surveyed by Pew Research approved of execution and stoning, respectively, as punishments for apostates and adulterers – views that hardly seem liberal or democratic. Not surprisingly, nearly 65 percent of the electorate voted for the Islamist parties during the parliamentary elections. Given that the election of Islamists seemed to represent the popular will of the Egyptian electorate – and that minorities and dissenters have suffered mightily as a consequence – the outcome seems to validate the fears of Plato, Aristotle and America’s founding fathers.
If the Egyptian military indeed permits Morsi and the Islamists to wield real political power, the Brotherhood’s doctrinal positions will certainly discourage the growth of democratic institutions. Under Sharia, non-Muslims are considered unequal, speech deemed offensive to Islam is not tolerated, and non-Muslim religious expression is subject to limitations that would be repugnant in western society. Clearly, therefore, a system of government based on Sharia would be incompatible with democratic values. The treatment of the Coptic population provides telling evidence that freedom of religion, among other fundamental liberties, will be neither fostered nor respected.
With regard to foreign affairs, the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to respect the integrity and sovereignty of nations not governed by Islam – least of all Israel or the United States. Even as the Obama Administration panders to Morsi by inviting him to the White House and offering to forgive $1 billion in Egyptian foreign debt, the Brotherhood openly preaches jihad against the United States, and has been doing so for years. Moreover, this preaching crossed the line from theoretical to practical years ago, as was reported by the Dallas Morning News in 2007. During its coverage of the Holy Land Foundation trial in Texas five years ago, the DMN reported the following:
‘A 1991 strategy paper for the Brotherhood, often referred to as the Ikhwan in Arabic, found in the Virginia home of an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, describes the group’s U.S. goals, referred to as a ‘civilization-jihadist process.’
‘The Ikhwan must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and sabotaging its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions,’ it states. This process requires a “mastery of the art of ‘coalitions,’ the art of ‘absorption’ and the principles of ‘cooperation.’
The Muslim Brotherhood apparently regards American-style democracy as an evil that must be eliminated. Because the Islamist agenda is doctrinally supremacist, it is foolish to think that Morsi and the Brotherhood will magically transform into zealous advocates for democracy simply because they won an election. Iran also holds elections but can hardly be considered a constitutional democracy. At best, Iran is an Islamist republic governed by a code that is parochial, totalitarian and chauvinistic; and the Brotherhood’s political ascension signals that Egypt is headed in the same direction. It seems quite unlikely that an Islamist ruling elite once entrenched would be willing to jeopardize its hold on power by risking open elections with non-Islamists or secularists (if such even exist on the Egyptian political landscape).
The outlook for real democracy in Egypt is dim whether Morsi and the Brotherhood are permitted to govern or the military retains control. If in fact the military were to continue in power, perhaps the only difference would be the absence of the illusion of democracy implied by legislative and presidential elections.
Egypt is simply not a liberal democracy regardless of who actually administers the government, which begs the question of how secular leftists, mainstream liberals, and even some conservatives could endorse it as such. The only apparent explanations are that they are ignorant of the doctrinal motives of the Islamist agenda, or they feel a kinship with its rejection of the West’s cultural values and colonial past. Given the mainstream’s general aversion to extremism, it seems likely that moderate liberals and misguided conservatives are simply unaware of the Brotherhood’s Islamist goals and supremacist aspirations.
The political left, however, seems to have a real affinity for Islamist extremism, which may reflect certain similarities in outlook if not doctrine. Similar to the Islamists it seeks to legitimize, the left cannot tolerate dissent and yearns for a totalitarian utopia based on its own rigid values and priorities. Though leftists may not believe in Islamist religious doctrine, they seem to appreciate its dogmatic absolutism and may well empathize with its autocratic impulse and rejection of western cultural values. Perhaps this empathy for Islamism is the real reason the left stokes the myth of Egyptian democracy, and consequently why it is so important to shatter the myth and expose the truth.