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Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

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Myths of Mubarak

Posted: 02/08/11 01:36 PM ET

It is striking the extent to which the word "secular" -- and related terms such as secular democracy and secular leaders -- are relatively synonymous with all that is good, right and universal in many Western accounts of developments in Egypt.

The indiscriminate association of the secular with good governance and the natural domain of rational self-interest and universalist ethics contrasts with the idea of Islam as irrational and decidedly not secular.

But as history plays out so dramatically in the Middle East, it is time to replace such simplistic views of Muslim-majority societies with a much more complicated story about religion and politics in Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 and still officially outlawed in Egypt, is anxiously depicted in these accounts as "Islamist" and represented as a potential danger that might result from the emergence of democracy in Egypt. Political positions expressed through reference to Islamic tradition, history, or politics are assimilated into the category of "bad" politics and assumed to threaten normal, rational, and democratic politics. Political Islam is seen as a throwback to pre-modern forms of Muslim political order.

Thus, aligning Western interests with a secular dictator has been seen as preferable to encouraging democratic measures that would accommodate the interests of so-called unreliable and dangerous Islamists.

The United States has stood forcefully and famously behind this state-instituted and highly securitized secular-religious oppositional binary as a means of defending its interests in the region. These are defined primarily as ensuring Israeli security, pursuing the war on terror, and guaranteeing access to oil.

After Egypt's 2005 parliamentary elections, in which the Muslim Brotherhood gained one-fifth of the seats in parliament, U.S. pressure on the Mubarak regime decreased and then ceased entirely after Hamas' victory in 2006. Washington remained silent as the Mubarak regime arrested hundreds of Brothers and transferred dozens to military courts.

But today the Egyptian people and a powerful anti-Mubarak coalition are overturning this entire structure of domination, upheld by Mubarak and aided and abetted by the Americans and the Europeans for decades. The future is up for grabs.

Misguided Western constructs of Islamist politics have empowered Mubarak and other autocrats throughout the region. Such thinking fails to address the realities of contemporary politics in states in which these movements have gained a strong and legitimate political foothold. These cannot be washed away by wishful thinking in Washington, London, or Jerusalem.

Such a hostile attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood also is unfounded. According to Nathan Brown, "a lot of their program is just standard reform stuff--independence of the judiciary, the end of corruption, protecting the environment. Especially when they got more political over the last 10 years or so, what they really began to push was a very general reform language that takes Islamic coloration in some areas. But an awful lot of it is consistent with other reform programs coming from reformists all over the political spectrum."

It remains to be seen whether Western decision-makers and pundits will display the political courage and intellectual creativity needed to move beyond the false choice between secular dictators and "crazy Islamists" and support real democracy in the Middle East, for a change. The opposite of democratic is not Islamic. It is military dictatorship.