Democracy also means that Islamists are allowed to vote

 Democracy also means that Islamists are allowed to vote 
When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced recently that Egypt would, for the first time in its history, hold a multi-candidate president election, the international community reacted with collective surprise. Some, perhaps prematurely, hailed this as a courageous move. Others, particularly in the U.S., called it a resounding victory for the Bush administration’s “forward strategy for freedom.” It was neither. 

For those carefully following the Egyptian saga, the events leading up to the announcement proved disturbing and unpredictable. Beginning in late January, numerous activists were detained, including Ayman Nour, the young, dynamic leader of the liberal Al-Ghad party, who was arrested on January 29 on what were clearly bogus charges. On February 22, while being interrogated after midnight, Nour, a diabetic, began sweating and vomiting, prompting human rights activists to warn that his life may be in danger.

Despite American displeasure and growing domestic anger, Mubarak called opposition demands for constitutional reform “futile.” The tension mounted when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice postponed a trip to Cairo, in part over concerns that the Egyptian regime was displaying political high-handedness. Following Mubarak’s dramatic reversal on the presidency, it seemed as if Washington’s pressure had paid off. Yet, American involvement in the Nour controversy, and the Egyptian regime’s contradictory responses to this, raised questions that remain unanswered.

The Bush administration was furious about Nour’s arrest, and rightfully so. Yet the episode was hardly unique. An estimated 15,000 Islamists languish in Egyptian jails – political prisoners who have no recourse to due process or to a fair trial because of 24-year-old Emergency Laws. Yet it is telling, and unsettling, that while the U.S. has expressed outrage over Nour, a secularist, it has for decades remained silent about the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest, most influential opposition group. Had a Brotherhood leader been detained, would the U.S. have responded in the same way? After all, the mainstream Islamist opposition long ago unequivocally committed itself to non-violent participation in Egyptian political life.

Those of us who work for political reform in the Arab world were heartened by President George W. Bush’s bold inaugural speech, in which he pledged to make the spread of democracy the centerpiece of his Middle East policy. No longer, Bush said, would the U.S. excuse or tolerate dictatorships. He neglected to mention, however, a reason why Washington had always done so. While U.S. policymakers have stated a desire to promote democracy, they have also sought to curb the growing power of Islamists – who stand to gain most from the democratic atmosphere the U.S. is trying to foster in the region.

In other words, the fear that Islamists will come to power through a democratic process makes spreading democracy in the Arab world less desirable. 

This question is especially relevant in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood continues to be banned from electoral participation. Although the details of who will be allowed to run for president are unclear, it’s improbable the Brotherhood will be allowed to contest elections, as candidates will likely need to be endorsed by a legal political party and cleared by Parliament, where Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party commands more than 90 percent of seats.

If Bush is serious about democracy, and it appears that he is, then his administration must develop a more coherent stance on the phenomenon of political Islam. By virtue of their street legitimacy and mass support at the grassroots level, the peaceful Islamists cannot be wished away. Moreover, it is impossible to imagine how Egypt could ever join the ranks of the world’s true democracies if it fails to incorporate a group that commands the largest electoral constituency in the country. 

Islamists, for their part, have proven their commitment to peaceful democratic participation in Morocco, Yemen, Kuwait and Jordan, where they are powerful forces in Parliament. Islamists in Turkey, for example, have demonstrated their impressive ability to adapt to social and political realities – in the process becoming poster-boys for Islamic moderation. Turkey’s Islamist politicians were once fiery advocates of disengagement with the West. Today, the ruling Islamic-leaning Justice and Development party, in an ironic twist, has sought active engagement with the West, particularly the European Union.

Jordan’s experience is also worth noting – a rare of example of more than five decades of peaceful coexistence and often close cooperation between Islamists and the ostensibly secular Hashemite monarchy. The lesson here is clear: Free elections, the expansion of political space, and other institutional mechanisms that encourage conflict resolution through peaceful means push Islamic parties to become more moderate in their goals and aims. 

To be sure, Ayman Nour is a courageous politician deserving of America’s attention and support. His arrest has provided the Bush administration with an opportunity to prove its commitment to democracy in the Arab world. Nour and his promising party of young liberals, however, are but one piece of a complex puzzle. If the U.S. plans to tread a bold new path in the region, it will have to pressure recalcitrant regimes, such as Mubarak’s, to include in the democratic process not only liberals like Nour, but also moderate Islamists.

Shadi Hamid is a Fulbright Fellow in Amman, Jordan, and is conducting research on democratization and political Islam. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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