The various Arab uprisings have forced the United States to make priorities – and fast. It must juggle often-conflicting interests in the Middle East, such as oil, Israel, terrorism, women’s rights, and democracy.
One big challenge now emerging in post-Mubarak Egypt is whether Islamic political groups will alter their theology to work within a secular, elected government.
Hints that the biggest Islamic organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, will not seek to dominate the country’s budding democracy suggest that Egypt might follow the examples set by two other large, mainly Muslim nations, Turkey and Indonesia.
Turkey is a quasi-European country and NATO member that is led by an Islamic party dedicated to secular rule. In Indonesia, Islamic parties have lost favor in the elections since democracy was restored in 1998.
Many predict that the journey of Egypt – in many ways the intellectual and cultural center of the Arab world – to democracy will be a difficult one. One key will be whether a government reflects the Egyptian people, in the spirit of the street protests that ousted Hosni Mubarak. Trying to graft a foreign, Western concept onto Muslim roots won’t work. Egyptians must see the embracing of universal rights, including the right to a ballot, as their choice.
The 600,000-member-strong Muslim Brotherhood, with its deep roots in both charity and political work, has so far welcomed an open political role for itself – after long being tarred as antidemocratic, eager to turn Egypt into another Iran, with clerical rule.
That depiction now needs revision.
The Brotherhood will form a political party. (It had members in the recently dissolved parliament, though they could not be openly affiliated with the Brotherhood.) And at least for now, the group says it won’t offer a candidate for president in the coming election. It’s far from certain that the Brotherhood could even win a fair presidential election, at least on its first try.
The group seems eager to keep a low profile, and work locally. While it has strong support among a minority of Egyptians, it is also mistrusted by many, including the military, which is now in charge. The Brotherhood played an important, but not leading, role in the recent protests.
Many observers say the Brotherhood has purged itself of radical elements and that it wants to be known as a nonviolent moderate Islamic institution. It quickly and clearly denounced the 9/11 attacks on the US, for example. It has concentrated on generating goodwill among the needy by building schools and clinics in some of Egypt’s poorest communities.
To participate in a democracy that will be recognized by the Western world, the Brotherhood will have to accept, at least in principle, the concept of religious pluralism (Egypt has a large Coptic Christian community) and rights for women. There are signs that it is willing to do so.
In a theocracy, whoever claims to speak for God can seize power and rule in His name alone. In a democracy, citizens accept – within the protections of a constitution – the rule of the majority. Minority views are not only allowed but expected and protected. Government operates as a secular institution. It leaves religious practices as an individual matter, not a mandate from the state.
If the Muslim Brotherhood can’t participate in a democracy under these terms, Egypt may face a dark and twisting road ahead. If it can, Egypt could experience, in Lincoln’s words, “a new birth of freedom,” and send a burst of light across the Arab world.