Focusing on the Wrong Islamist Threat in Egypt

08/02/2011 05:03 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

Since I posted my last piece, written before the massive show of force by Islamist groups in Tahrir Square on July 29, several people have asked me if I would now like to reconsider my position.

It's a good question.  The mass demonstration involving tens of thousands of people was one of the biggest since the February protests that culminated with the overthrow of President Mubarak.  On this occasion, the slogans and demands were not democratic or inclusive. They demanded the implementation of Islamic law and condemned liberalism and secularism.  Secular and liberal activists who had shown up expecting a rally in support of national unity were shouted down and formally withdrew their backing for the protests.

For supporters of a peaceful democratic transition in Egypt the show of force by Salafi and other extremists was alarming.  Such groups make no secret of their disdain for liberal principles like equal rights for women or religious minorities.  They view democracy with suspicion, and in many cases open hostility, and they believe that in a Muslim majority country like Egypt, the government should be theocratic, with God's law, as interpreted by them, firmly above the inferior laws of man passed by a parliament or enshrined in international human rights treaties.

Commentators who have expressed concerns about the democratic transition in Egypt being hijacked by Islamic extremists have tended to focus on the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice political party exercising influence through gaining power through the elections.  This is unlikely to happen: partly because the Freedom and Justice party's level of support does not appear to be that large and also because the Brotherhood is likely to run its candidates for parliament in coalition with other political parties, blurring their identity.

Even if the Brotherhood does emerge as part of some ruling coalition, this could be a good thing since it would force them both to moderate their positions to adapt to the demands of coalition politics, and force them to adopt policy positions that respond to the needs of the Egyptian people for jobs, economic recovery and many other things, rather than being the party of pious generalizations, like "Islam is the solution."  Getting their hands dirty with messy policy choices will inevitably make them unpopular with some and put them on the same level as other competing political actors.

Given that Islamism is a strong political movement in Egypt, it is preferable that as much of it as possible can be accommodated within the political system, abiding by the rules of democratic politics.  The alternative, as seen last Friday, would be much worse: extremist forces pushing their agenda through intimidation and ultimately violence.

But for many Egyptians who worry about the influence of Islamism, Friday's events stoke fears that the Islamists will operate on two levels with a constitutional face from the Brotherhood and its party in parliament, and enforcers in the street from the Salafis and Gama'a who would wage campaigns on issues like enforced veiling of women, inflammatory accusations against the Copts, attacks on "blasphemers" and "heretics" and attempts to ban books, or silence writers they disapprove of.

Prior to the protests on Friday, the Muslim Brotherhood had reached an agreement with other political parties and protest movements around a set of demands emphasizing national unity in pushing forward to realize the goals of the revolution.  This agreement was disregarded by the demonstrators in the square, including many Muslim Brotherhood supporters, arousing allegations that the Brotherhood had acted in bad faith.

Freedom and Justice Party leaders, like Essam al-Erian, tried to repair the damage and to distance the organization from the events in the square, but many will be unconvinced and will see this as further evidence of Islamist double dealing.  The Freedom and Justice Party and its backers in the Brotherhood now face a challenge to show how its program differs from the alarming, extreme demands voiced by Salafis and other anti-democratic forces last Friday.

So, if I were to reconsider my views after the events of Friday July 29, I would observe first, that efforts to inflate the electoral threat of the Muslim Brotherhood are indeed overblown and likely counterproductive, but I would add a further point: that Islamic extremists are a threat to democratic transition in Egypt. This threat will be best contained by including political parties with Islamist roots, like the Freedom and Justice Party, in the democratic process while insisting that such inclusion requires the commitment in words and deeds of all parties to basic democratic principles, including non-violence and adherence to constitutional and international standards upholding basic rights and freedoms and outlawing discrimination.

Many will doubt the sincerity of any commitment that Islamist parties might make.  However, the alternative of exclusion and repression has already been tried in Egypt and many other parts of the Middle East and it has led to stagnation, corruption and decline.  Advancing Egypt's democratic transition will require that the Egyptian authorities and people rise to the challenge presented by anti-democratic forces in their midst with more democracy.  Binding safeguards for basic rights and freedoms for all Egyptians must be enshrined in a new constitution and new laws, upheld by a stronger more independent judiciary.  Free media, independent civil society organizations and the many institutions of free societies must be permitted to take root and flourish.  These are the defining values and institutions of free, democratic societies and the best defenses against tyranny and extremism in Egypt and everywhere.