Democracy in Egypt?

Joseph Braude argues in the New Republic that the U.S. should not pressure Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to hold free and open elections because the likely outcome would be a radical Islamist victory.

By contrast to some Shia Islamist parties, which began making conciliatory gestures toward the United States months before the invasion of Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood–a Sunni, Egyptian-dominated international movement–has been ratcheting up its anti-American rhetoric.
Leaving aside the fact that more radical groups, including Al Qaeda, arose directly from the Muslim Brotherhood–the mentoring relationship in Afghanistan between Brotherhood stalwart Abdullah Azzam and Osama Bin Laden has been ably chronicled in an Al Jazeera documentary–the stated goals of the mainstream Brotherhood leaders are bone-chilling enough. For instance, they aspire to undo the entire framework of Arab-Israeli peace. Hamas, the Brotherhood’s offspring in Palestine, is now in the delicate early phases of political détente with the Palestinian Authority–an encouraging move due in no small part to the prodding of Egypt’s intelligence services. A new Egyptian governing coalition with any significant Brotherhood presence would likely switch off such pressure, and Hamas could well regress toward militancy. In the Palestinian territories and throughout the Sunni-majority Arab world, political gains for the Brotherhood in Egypt–the country where the movement was born, and still the cultural and political capital of the region–would give a dramatic boost to hardline groups and undermine the nascent liberal movements that oppose them.

I agree that an Egypt dominated by the Islamists would be worse than one governed by the current dictatorship. Are those the only alternatives? Braude fears so.

[L]iberalism is weak in Egypt, and it needs time to strengthen itself. […] To foster a semblance of political balance in Egyptian society, political and cultural pressure must first be exerted from the top–a twenty-first century Ataturk-style project to undo the country’s decades-long tilt toward Islamism is needed. This means opening Egyptian broadcast media to progressive voices, not just religious clerics and the political establishment. It means advancing a secular humanist agenda through the educational system. It means opening the organs of state, from the judiciary to the executive, to the sort of exchange programs with democratic countries that bore fruit so profoundly in the Ukraine in recent months.

Braude thinks Mubarak, despite having been a dictator for nearly a quarter century, may be inclined to lead such a movement because of his advanced age and changing conditions and argues that U.S. policy initiaves backing such a move could be successful. I’m frankly skeptical of democracy being imposed from above but it’s not entirely without precedent.

I’m no Middle East scholar and my familiarity with Egypt consists of a month spent there in the summer of 2001 and having read a few books and articles. Still, I would note that Egypt is hardly Afghanistan. While there is no history of democracy, it’s not quite true that liberal institutions aren’t in place.

  • There is a thriving but small entrepreneurial class that has made it big supporting the tourist trade.
  • While the government controls the Egyptian media, international stations are also available. In Cairo, at least, satellite television is ubiquitous.
  • While Islam is a major force in society, there is a wide berth given by Middle East standards to non-Muslims. Not only are thousands Westerners running around the country but the Coptic Christian church has been permitted for centuries.
  • Compared to most Arab countries, women have enormous freedom. While many Egyptian women, especially in rural areas, wear burka-type garb, most of the women of the big cities are in Western-style attire. Women drive, go to school, and other things traditionally prohibited by Islam.
  • Egypt has a reasonably universal primary and secondary education system and universities for the elites. This includes Western-style schooling or even going to the West for credentialling.

It seems to me that, if Afghanistan and Iraq can have successful elections without turning into theocracies, there is a reasonable chance Egypt could do the same.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Democracy, Middle East, Religion, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. praktike says:

    From being there in Sept., I think that the majority of women wear the hijab in Cairo. But it’s the western-style hijab, for the most part.

  2. DC Loser says:

    Well, let’s remember that it’s the Egyptians who dominated Al-Qaeda. Sageman’s book on the terror network has a good summary of that. Al-Zawahiri was a western trained doctor but that didn’t stop him from being a terrorist. Don’t forget Nasser encouraged the Islamic Brotherhood to operate on Egyptian college campuses, and tolerated Qutb’s activities until they turned on him. And let’s not forget Sadat’s assassination by the Brotherhood. Egypt is one of the central nexus of the terror network.

  3. McGehee says:

    Al-Zawahiri was a western trained doctor but that didn’t stop him from being a terrorist.

    And in fact, giving lie to the once-prevalent claim that terrorism appeals to the poor, most of the leaders of terrorist movements over there do tend to be wealthy, educated people.

    However, they need the poor and poorly educated to be the martyrs — and if Egypt makes better educational opportunities available to that demographic, it should follow that there would be a lot less Egyptian cannon fodder than, say, Saudi.

  4. McGehee says:

    And, um, not to be monotonous, but 15 of the 19 suicide jihadis on 9/11 were Saudi nationals, not Egyptians.

    Just sayin’…

  5. DC Loser says:

    That the Saudis provided the muscle for 9/11 isn’t germane in this discussion of Egypt. The IB has an longstanding organization and could have great influence if free elections are offered. Look to Hezbollah or Hamas as an example of what that kind of organization could muster.