The Ballot Box Can Moderate Islamists

After the Muslim Brotherhood achieved unprecedented success in Egypt’s parliamentary elections late last year, I talked to the movement’s spokesman, Essam al-Erian. He tried to reassure me that the group is politically moderate: “We seek a democratic, parliamentary republic that respects the rights of all citizens.”

He explained that the Brotherhood supports freedom of speech, assembly, and equality. He also called for ending Egypt’s repressive emergency laws and strengthening the independence of the judiciary.

But many Egyptians are not convinced.

Among them is Magdi Khalil, a prominent commentator for Egypt’s minority Coptic Christians. He claims that the Brotherhood showed its true colors during its previous terms in parliament when it called for censoring books deemed contrary to Islam, banning alcohol, imposing gender segregation in schools, and limiting the distribution of foreign newspapers. In his opinion, the Brotherhood’s current lofty rhetoric is simply an elaborate smoke screen that hides its true goal of creating “a fascist religious state”in Egypt.

These two views illustrate the central conundrum of the Brotherhood’s electoral success and, more broadly, the dilemma facing the Bush administration’s attempt to democratizethe Middle East.

Are the region’s Islamic groups genuinely supportive of democratic values? Or, are they simply exploiting democratic procedures as a means to attain power and then reject democracy? This question has assumed renewed urgency over the past year, as Islamic groups achieved unexpected gains at the ballot box in Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon.

During the election campaign last year,the Muslim Brotherhood did provide some cause for optimism. It focused on bread-and-butter issues: provision of public services, better education, less corruption, and more accountable government. Its success was due, in part, to persuading many Egyptians that it genuinely cared about their everyday well-being.

For example, the Brotherhood candidate in the Nile Delta town of Sharqiya built his stump speech around three themes: education reform, more transparency in government construction projects, and, improved social programs for the poor. The Brotherhood candidate in al-Gharbiyya echoed similar themes, calling for a new hospital, repairs to the local water treatment plant, and improved distribution of technical assistance to farmers.

In order to stay in office and to broaden its base of support, the Brotherhood must deliver on these practical promises. Rhetorical flourishes about the need to implement sharia law will take a back seat to these more pressing practical concerns.

Some observers believe that the Brotherhood will develop an effective political machine that can provide these services, enabling it to win bigger at the ballot box. However, once in power, they fear the Brotherhood will abandon democracy and use the coercive resources of the state to impose sharia.

This view fails to appreciate the ideological struggle currently unfolding within the Brotherhood.

The organization certainly contains radical Islamic elements. However, it also contains moderate thinkers and activists who are well organized and articulate. These two camps compete to define the ideological character and goals of the organization. In order to avoid a divisive clash between these camps, the Brotherhood’s leadership has carefully refrained from adopting a position on many contentious policy issues. This means that the Brotherhood’s political agenda is unclear.

Critics point to this lack of clarity as evidence that the Brotherhood is duplicitous and cannot be trusted. However, if this lack of clarity reflects genuine internal divisions, it creates an opportunity for Egyptians and outsiders to shape the development of the Brotherhood’s ideology.

How can the moderates be strengthened in this internal debate?

One possibility is to create a path to power that rewards moderation.

The Egyptian government can play an important role in this process by enforcing laws that keep public debate within democratic and inclusive boundaries. This would entail, particularly, the clear and consistent enforcement of laws that protect the rights of non-Muslims and women. Egypt’s existing laws prohibit statements and actions that incite sectarian strife. They also protect the rights of women at school, in the workplace, and at home. However, these laws are enforced inconsistently.

Some radical Islamists have incited violence against the Copts and faced little or no punishment. Others have undertaken extensive campaigns to limit the rights of women to education and careers. Enforcing prohibitions on these types of speech and action would constitute an infringement on freedom, but even established democracies – including the US – accept that public order and safety sometimes require limiting personal liberties. In the Egyptian case, these restrictions would force all factions of the Brotherhood to play the political game according to democratic rules of equality and tolerance. It would make clear that the price of admission to the political marketplace is the development of a moderate and inclusive ideology.

With these boundaries to political action and debate in place, the Brotherhood should be permitted to compete in free and fair elections at both the local and national level.

If the recent parliamentary elections are any indication, the resulting electoral contests will focus on how to provide good services and responsive government to citizens. These contests will, themselves, shape the Brotherhood’s ideology in a direction that internalizes and promotes moderation.


Bruce Rutherford teaches political science at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. He is completing a book titled, “Taming Autocracy: Constitutionalism and Democracy in Egypt.”