Achieving stable democratic states in the Middle East is no simple task. The region has endured centuries of autocratic, monarchic and dictatorial regimes that have weakened the will of the people, making democracy today seem like a distant, naïve ideal. Despite the difficulty of the task, the United Sates could play a role in the democratic development of Middle Eastern governments, and not only in Iraq. It can begin with one of its closest regional allies – Egypt.
As the second highest recipient of US aid, Egypt has borne an atrocious human and civil rights record under the 27-year tenure of President Hosni Mubarak. His leadership allows for very little political opposition, and where it exists, is carefully controlled. Despite overwhelming evidence of this paper democracy, Washington policy makers continue to dole out dollars that buttress the regime.
In 2005 Condoleezza Rice affirmed at the American University of Cairo that America was charting a new course in the region by “supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” But three years later, reports suggest that election fraud, arbitrary arrests, and human rights abuses continue unabated. Now that the rhetoric of the Bush administration is on its way out, the flawed example of American democracy promotion in Egypt should no longer be followed. A new, bold course must be forged.
The Obama administration should pursue true democracy by reconsidering the US approach to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Islamist organization is legally barred from government as an institution. Its members are regularly arrested without cause even though it has followed a philosophy of tolerance and nonviolence for nearly thirty years.
The Obama administration should consider pressing the Egyptian government to accept the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate political institution. The Brotherhood emerged in 1929 as an Islamic political movement in Egypt under the leadership of Hassan Al-Banna and since then has spread throughout the Middle East with varying ideological positions. Unlike neighboring Jordan where the Brotherhood is allowed the freedom to operate and participate politically, in Egypt it cannot. Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members nonetheless occupy nearly a third of the lower house of the Egyptian Parliament, running as independents, and pose the largest threat to Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party.
Allowing the Brotherhood to participate in the open is not an ideological question – it’s a practical one. Although technically illegal on paper, the Brotherhood survives. By not being defined as a party and by contesting as independents, its members are given sufficient room to maneuver around choking restrictions placed on the opposition that is legally bound. By declaring the Brotherhood illegal while still allowing members to participate politically, the Egyptian government is circuitously aiding this religiously stalwart group to power.
The US is leery of a lift on this ban on the Brotherhood, which is understandable given the religious motivation for the attacks of 9/11, but the fears are in fact unfounded. By accepting the Muslim Brotherhood into mainstream politics, allowing other parties more freedom to operate, and creating an atmosphere of fair representation, the Islamists are likely to loosen their grip on parliamentary power, not tighten it. Moreover, the group’s legalization would minimize their mystique by pulling extremism into the ring with moderates. No longer operating in the shadows, the Brothers’ political legitimacy would then be addressed and challenged in the public sphere.
But there is also a danger if the United Sates continues to dismiss the Muslim Brotherhood. By refusing to acknowledge it, Washington is sending a mixed message to other nations of the Middle East that the US is pushing to democratize. It suggests that some groups only have a say if Washington agrees with its politics – that doesn’t sound much like democracy.
Still, the potential of an Islamic state run by the Muslim Brotherhood may be dangerous for America politically and economically. It could block free access to the Suez Canal and threaten staunch ally, Israel. Although a majority of Egyptians do not support the Camp David Peace Accords, the government defends it and has done so since its confirmation in 1978. At 2.1 billion dollars a year in US funding to maintain it, however, the Egyptians, regardless of who is in power, would be hard pressed to break the deal.
If the U.S. seeks to continue its rhetoric of political participation as a function of democratization, it should acknowledge that excluding religiously affiliated groups is a serious mistake. The incoming Obama administration should press the Egyptian government to legally include the Muslim Brotherhood in the political process. For democracy to flourish the United States must acknowledge all political parties that fall along the ideological spectrum, and the voices of the people – all people – must be heard. The results of free and fair elections should be respected whether or not the outcomes mirror American preferences.
Middle Eastern countries have deep, complex histories. This part of the world is defined by thousands of years of embedded traditions, with differing tribes, ethnicities, cultures and religions. Democracy here must develop on its own, from its own beliefs, colored through its own distinct cultural lens.
The Brotherhood ought to get a fair chance in the political process. Only then will the US government match policy with message and promote true democracy in the Middle East.
Amanda Kadlec is an MA candidate in International Affairs specializing in US foreign policy and democratizing states.