THE BLOG
02/11/2011 05:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Religious Actors Can Be Democratizers

With news of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepping down, the key question becomes "who will govern Egypt?" Although Mubarak has handed power over to the military, there is still the possibility that other actors, including the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), could step in to fill the vacuum. The central question is: If the MB comes to power in Egypt or even becomes a major player, what will its position be on the transformation of the political system in Egypt? Is it a force for democracy or a force for authoritarianism? In essence, will the MB foster a conservative Islamic vision for Egypt?

The evidence is mixed, but on balance I predict the MB will be a force for democratic change. What is my evidence? I have two sorts. The first regards the MB itself and the second is the role of religious actors in politics more generally.

We should recall that like any other organization, the MB has gone through changes over the years since its founding, and that those changes, including its core constituency, have depended in some measure on the nature of the regime in power. Although there are elements within the Egyptian MB who advocate a stronger role for Islam in Egyptian politics, in the last decade, the MB's leaders have come to understand that in order to govern, they need to moderate their behavior. We do know that the MB has some popular support, having garnered about 20 percent of the popular vote in the 2005 parliamentary elections (and probably could have won more had it been able to slate more candidates). Even were the MB to become more integral of the political process in Egypt, the numbers indicate that its influence is already quite limited; and although the MB continues to include extremist, more fundamentalist elements (however defined), these represent a small fraction within the organization itself, and an even smaller fraction of Egyptian society.

This is not to deny that the MB was not more extremist in the past (members of an even more extreme Islamist offshoot killed Mubarak's predecessor). Yet over time, they have moderated their political stance and role within Egyptian society, becoming more democratic and representative than the regime itself.

A second key point is that the MB in Egypt is representative of a broader trend. For the past three decades, the world has witnessed an amazing transformation of global politics, the movement away from authoritarianism and towards greater equality and representation for the world's citizens. Since 1970, Freedom House reports that the number of "free" countries in the world has doubled while the number of "not free" countries has declined by half.

Little noticed in this transformation is the role of religious actors, including political parties, in this process. Research reported in my new book, God's Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics, (co-authored with Daniel Philpott and Timothy Shah) shows that from 1972-2009, the world witnessed 78 cases of countries that made significant strides towards more free and open political systems. Of those cases, religious actors played a substantial role in 48 of them, or 62 percent. These are the success stories, and they do not include any countries from the Middle East. This, however, does not mean that religious actors did not try. Rather, lack of progress towards greater democratization was due to the nature of the regimes that they were challenging, which were highly repressive and effective in countering this pro-democratic religious activism. Interestingly, Egypt and Tunisia were two of the countries that witnessed this activism, and both are now undergoing remarkable transformations of their political systems.

This is not to say that religious actors always take a pro-democratic role. Over the same period, there were at least ten countries that witnessed religious actors playing a counter-democratizing role, the most infamous of which are Afghanistan, Iran and Sudan. It is fair to say, however, that in a far larger number of cases, it was secular authorities, including Mubarak in Egypt (and now perhaps the military regime that has replaced him), that clamped down and prevented progress toward a more transparent, equitable and just political system.

Time will tell whether the MB continues to adopt a representative and more democratic orientation. But, if the history of democratization and the trends over the last four decades are any guide, the chances are that it will represent the interests of Egyptian society more broadly. In other words, the MB is unlikely to dominate Egyptian politics moving forward, but even if it does play a major role, that role is likely to be more democratic and constructive than many who abjure religious political groups fear.

This article first appeared at Power & Policy, a forum of Harvard's Kennedy School and Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.