MB and democracy, again
This afternoon I spoke at a panel at Brookings with Daniel Levy about Islamist movements. I”m not sure what the rules of engagement were, so I won”t talk about any of the content really. But I did want to share my own reflections on the subject after almost a year of sustained dialogues about the subject of the Muslim Brotherhood. (I”d also like to flag the incisive rejoinder to my efforts by the Jordanian analyst Mohammed Abu Roman in al-Hayat yesterday – I promise to summarize his comments and respond when I get the chance. But that”s not the point of today”s post.)
One of the main axes of debate has long been the Brotherhood”s commitment to democracy, both as a process and as a normative ideal. I”ve argued throughout that at this point, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – to say nothing of Islamist movements such as the AKP – have done pretty much everything they could reasonably do to demonstrate their commitment to the democratic process, often paying heavy costs for their efforts. That doesn”t mean that they have answered all the questions – as the discussion over their political party platform demonstrated – nor that they could be seen as a force promoting Western-style liberal or secularist values. Still, this demonstrated commitment to the democratic game is no small thing and should not be undervalued.
At the same time, I increasingly feel like the discussion has become pointless at a time when the Egyptian government”s lack of commitment to democracy and American indifference to its non-democratic ways have never been more blatantly clear. I”ve grown tired of debating the finer points of the Brotherhood”s party platform searching for clues as to their true feelings about democracy at a time when large numbers of their members are once again being arrested for the crime of trying to participate in elections. I find it frustrating to push for dialogue when its leading advocates within the organization – such as Ikhwanweb”s Khaled Hamza, who languishes in prison and was recently rushed to the hospital for treatment – are arrested for the crime of trying to promote dialogue with nary a peep from most Western democracy activists. I fear that the moderates and reformists within the Muslim Brotherhood will lose more and more ground as their democratic efforts produce few results at home or abroad and trigger greater regime repression – and that radicals will gain ground as a result. I find it hard to persuade anyone in Egypt that the United States cares in the slightest about democracy in their country when the Bush administration quietly drops even its symbolic protests and gives back the $100 million in aid that it docked over human rights violations which have only grown worse.
Last week a delegation from the Egyptian Parliament headed by Speaker Fathi Srour trooped through the Elliott School, parading its members before the invited audience as if it demonstrated the diversity of Egyptian politics. I didn”t go, partly because I taught a class at the same time, and partly because it felt like an ugly, sick joke. A delegation from the Russian Parliament would be about as edifying – but at least there, nobody pretends to be fooled. It”s about time that they start fielding the questions about their commitment to democracy, and paying a price for their failure to offer satisfying answers. They might start by explaining why Khaled Hamza is still in jail, and what exactly the crime is in trying to contest elections and pushing tirelessly to promote dialogue with the West.