Two edges of democracy

Democracy, it turns out, is a double-edged sword in American hands. How can one make spreading democracy the ostensible basis for conducting foreign policy while invading and occupying another country; maintaining that the United States is above international law; disregarding the Geneva Conventions through a semantic exercise so that terrorism suspects can be tortured in third countries; making the military arm of the government conduct a disinformation campaign abroad by bribing journalists and sponsoring television and radio stations clandestinely?

If the Bush administration can perform these tasks while maintaining a straight face, it deserves the best actor’s award. But the strains are showing and nowhere more so that in the results of the recent Egyptian parliamentary elections. Despite a flawed election, with intimidation and arrests and violence occurring once the campaign was over, the elections did not go according to script. The Muslim Brotherhood, which fought the election by setting up independent candidates, won some 20 per cent of seats, a six-fold increase over its strength in the previous Parliament.

Admittedly, the ruling National Democratic Party won the overwhelming number of seats in an environment in which a 24-year-old emergency is still in force. But for the first time street rallies were allowed and a press that became increasingly vociferous was tolerated and the Muslim Brotherhood openly flaunted its slogan “Islam is the Solution.” Then the velvet glove was off, and arrests and intimidation followed. According to the present election law, no party not occupying 10 per cent seats in the Lower and Upper Houses can field candidates in future. The Muslim Brotherhood is banned and no other party meets the requirement.

The Bush administration is plainly worried by the results. The 77-year-old President Hosni Mubarak had earlier won a fifth term in office in a symbolically contested election. But if a country which remains the trendsetter and leader of the Arab world can go the Muslim Brotherhood way, given half a chance, what would happen to American interests and the much-advertised “war on terror”? It was not meant to be so, but the modern moderate Opposition parties gathered an insignificant share of votes.

If Iraq represents the failed laboratory of democracy, President George W. Bush asked Egypt to show the way. In its own hesitant way, Egypt is showing the way, a path not to American liking. It is worth examining the reasons. Ever since President Mubarak assumed office after the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in 1981 by Islamic extremists angry at being suppressed, the Muslim Brotherhood has been given some room for breathing even as its supporters have been periodically arrested and incarcerated.

The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, built up a loyal following on the same basis as Hamas in the Palestinian territories. It fulfilled the basic needs of the poor and the dispossessed by providing them sustenance and health care. And a large section of the people languishing in poverty with little hope of seeing better times, the Brotherhood gave them hope with the slogan “Islam is the Solution.”

Recent ugly incidents between Muslims and the significant Copt Christian community are a portent of increasing communal tensions. But the Brotherhood has chosen a careful path sensing its increased clout. It is in no hurry to bring in the Sharia law as the only source of Egyptian jurisprudence, nor does it want to flaunt its religiosity. Its immediate demands are eminently reasonable and supported by the moderate Opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood has placed itself squarely in the ranks of those seeking political reform.

To begin with, the Brotherhood wants to reform the election law before seeking recognition for itself. Tensions have, in fact surfaced between different wings of the organisation on proposals to divide the party between a civil party that could take its place in the formal political structure and a purely religious organisation. It is, in any event, seeking to allay fears that were it to come to power, women and minority rights would be the first casualty.

As the Brotherhood evolves, pressures on President Mubarak for domestic reform will grow. How long can he retain the emergency, for instance? And can he indefinitely postpone electoral and other political reforms that skew the playing field in favour of his party? There is also the important question of his younger son Gamal, reportedly waiting in the wings to succeed him, already making his presence felt in important ministry through his party post. The general voter apathy in an authoritarian system can be gauged from the voting figures in the parliamentary elections of less than 20 per cent. How long can security issues be used to intimidate voters and prevent them from going to the polls?

While President Mubarak wrestles with these questions, President Bush has a bigger question to ponder. What if the magic wand of democracy delivers a set of anti-American dispensations in the Arab world inimical to American ideas and opposed to Washington’s interests? Will President Bush, who has been castigating his predecessors in office for turning a blind eye to dictatorships in West Asia, reverse course and join their ranks? Thus far, his simplistic logic has been that dictatorships nurture extremists and suicide bombers and hence democracy will be an antidote while serving Washington’s core interests in ensuring energy supplies. The fallacy in this argument is that the more democratic a regime becomes, it will ask more uncomfortable questions on the correlation of its own interests with America’s.

One consequence of the Egyptian parliamentary election results is likely to be a slowing down of American enthusiasm for persuading the Arab world on the virtues of democracy. The streak of pragmatism that has always permeated American policy-making, epitomised in a US official’s comment that “he is a bastard but he is our bastard,” is waiting to be restored after President Bush’s exaggerated concept of ruling the world in the form of a Second Roman Empire. The world will then breathe a sigh of relief.