Can Democracy Survive? The Muslim Brotherhood and Political Power

In light of efforts to plant democracy in the Middle East, it is important to understand something of the history of the Muslim Brotherhood.  This is important because the Islamic movements in the Arab countries are variations of the Muslim Brotherhood, and would probably follow its example.


So, what can we expect if the Islamists, by way of legitimate democratic means, take part in ruling their countries?  It is quite possible that they will proceed, unhindered, in carrying out their proclaimed objectives at the expense of civil society and democracy.


This bleak prospect can still be avoided if there are predetermined safeguards to shield the democratic system, and effectively curb this wild fascist agenda to make it, in essence, a civil project carrying an Islamic name, much similar to the Christian parties in Europe.


If there is such a thing as a “recipe for democracy,” would the Turkish experience be a viable recipe for the Arab world?  The answer is negative; Turkey’s democratic achievements are the product of a unique set of circumstances, and the result of the development and preservation of its civil society for the last 75 years, a strong focus on secular values and a close interaction with its European neighbors.  The secular nature of Turkish society is safeguarded by its armed forces, laws, constitution, and a long history of democratic practices.


The lesson learned from the Turkish experience is that the development of a secular society is a necessary prelude to democratization.  In a book published last year and entitled The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Mr. Fareed Zakaria discussed the theme of democracy, freedoms and civil society.  He stated that the much desired democracy is not about the transfer of power from the hands of militaries to the hands of a religious rabble hiding behind fake religious masks, but rather the transfer of power into the hands of a sound civil society capable of choosing leaders who believe in power circulation, freedom, and the value of human life.


Evidently, democracy – in the true sense of the word – can never be attained without granting freedoms first.  It is seriously misleading to define democracy as nothing more than ballots and polls. Democracy has a large set of fundamental values and practices that include strong institutions, political awareness, respect of individual choices, the practice of citizenship and political rights, a total separation of the three branches of government, and an effective reinforcement of the rule of the law.


The Muslim Brotherhood loudly advocates free elections, but a free democratic society is based on a lot more than elections.  Honest and free elections are considered just one pillar, among a set of pillars that uphold the foundations of a democratic state:


–   A complete separation between state and religion, all constitutional articles that indicate the state’s official religion or refer to the Islamic Shari’a should, therefore, be annulled.


–   Religious freedom, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to freedom of religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, (or to have none) and the freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.  Religious freedom should be protected by constitution and laws.


–   Political rights, including citizenship rights for non-Muslims and women.  These rights should neither be based on, nor restricted by, religious creed; they should be based on the constitution and civil laws that opt for complete equality between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims.  The international treaties and agreements that support these rights should be accepted without reservations.  A conditional acceptance based on the compatibility with “Shari’a” is against the essence of these rights, as it promotes discrimination and denies equality.


–   To grant and respect personal freedom.  A person is not required to give account of his individual choices or actions unless they prove harmful to others.  From a religious perspective, he will be required to give account of his actions on judgment day, and that matter is strictly a personal matter that concerns no one but the individual and God Almighty.


–   A national identity for the state as opposed to a religious identity.  In that context, the focus on Islamic unity or Islamic Khilafa is not acceptable as it goes against the notion of a national state, and carries the dire prospect of a religious fascist rule. 


–   Freedom of expression in all its forms, including the right to publish newspapers and establish broadcasting media facilities, with no restrictions other than the ones that are applied in other democratic states.


–   To abide by the international agreements and treaties approved by Egypt in the past, including the peace treaty with Israel without religious or non-religious reservations, and to uphold the commitment to the peace process.


–   To accept and respect the values of modernity which are adopted by the Western societies: individuality, privacy, private property, free economy, creative interaction with other societies, and the complete separation between the branches of government.  These values stand against the submissive “flock behavior” and similar crippling social phenomena that crush individual vision and expression.


–  To adopt the language of a civil state as opposed to the religious fascist terminology that reinforces tyranny and regression.  The modern concept of democracy is, for example, conspicuously different from the religious concept of “Shura” (consultative decision making). The following expressions are frequently used: “major governance,” “minor governance,” “the nation’s constants,” “the nation’s identity,” “the nation’s enemies,”, “they (e.g. the Christians) have the same rights and duties as we do”, “land of war” and “land of peace”, the “unbelievers” or the “infidels” “Jihad,” (holy war) “cultural invasion,” and “hesba” (informal police neighborhood).  Some of these expressions are offensive and reflect a high level of intolerance and bigotry, and all of them are incompatible with the spirit of democracy and the foundations of a modern state.


– To endorse the elements of the civil society in the different aspects of life, and curb the religious tone, speech and expressions that presently colors the media, culture and laws.


If we opt for the reformist religious movements to become part of the democratic process, they should first proclaim their full acceptance and abidance with the terms of civil society.  Additionally, effective local and international safeguards should be set in place in order to protect the society against a violation of these rights.


A most effective local safeguard would be the formulation of a new social contract that endorses the values of coexistence, civil society, democracy, and a constitution that is consistent with those values.  Such a contract cannot be in effect unless it is approved by the entire society, including political powers from the right and left wings, civil society organizations, political parties, religious leaders and prominent public figures.  The High Constitutional Court would act as a supervisor to deal with possible violations, and under its guidance, the police and armed forces would act as guardians and protectors of the contract.  The entire political process, including the elections, should be under the authority of an empowered and totally independent judiciary; without the interference of the executive authority or religious institutions.


The involvement of the international community in monitoring this social contract would additionally safeguard the democratic system. International foundations and civil society organizations should be involved in monitoring elections, the status of women and minorities, and democratic development.


In fact, the international community should keep a close watch on the local situation if the Islamists are allowed to take part in ruling their countries.  If our worst fears come true, a request for international interference – in a military or non-military capacity – should not be deemed illegitimate.


It seems that the Western world, as eager as it is to reduce violence in the Islamic states, has opted for the Islamists to take part in ruling their countries.  The citizens of these countries, however, have no desire to suffer, unduly, for the sake of a ’’trial and error’’ experiment; because in that case the error would prove fatal!


To conclude, this whole scenario is based on two far-fetched assumptions:


1.   It is almost impossible to assume that Islamist parties would accept the values of a democratic and liberal society, since those are, in fact, in total contradiction with their proclaimed values.  That would be like joining two opposite values, or claiming that there is such a thing as “a legal murder” or a “wise fool.”  This erroneous assumption could best be described as an oxymoron, because the Islamists cannot possibly adopt those values and retain their identity as Islamists; they would otherwise become civil society advocators.


2.   Equally unlikely is the assumption that the Egyptian armed forces would be amenable to the role of guardians of civil society, democracy and secularism – as is the case in Turkey.  As a matter of fact, the armed forces believe they have “inherited” Egypt since the revolution of 1952; and act as legitimate owners rather than guardians.  They have no quarrel with the Islamists – quite the opposite in some cases – however this is a power conflict and not an ideological one.  The armed forces will not concede power, and would wage war on any potential competitors.  


Obviously, such a serious – and potentially lethal – issue merits careful consideration.  Obviously, further fruitful discussions on this matter are in order.


Magdi Khalil is a political analyst, researcher,  author, executive editor of the Egyptian weekly Watani International, columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper of London, freelance writer for several Arabic language newspapers, and requent contributor for Middle East broadcast news television. He has published three books and written numerous research papers on citizenship rights, civil society, and the situation of minorities in the Middle East.  He receives e-mail at: [email protected]