Muslim Brothers, Communists, and Democracy, Oh My!

At least with competition there's hope.

When Egypt's President Mubarak fell, the first thing most commentators thought was, "Good riddance to an abusive dictator!"

For leftists, that's where thinking stopped.  For the more level-headed, in contrast, the next thought was, "Wonder if whoever comes next will be worse?"  Certainly that was Scragged's concern - Mubarak didn't shy from imprisoning people for their political opinions, but generally it was Islamist political opinions that got you in trouble.

In short: Mubarak was an autocrat, but neither a totalitarian nor a kleptocrat.  Egypt under his rule was no Switzerland, but it wasn't Zimbabwe or Soviet Russia either.  We also know that it was no Iran.

Today, with Mubarak gone, the most powerful forces in Egypt appear to be the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Bros are on the way up.  In the past, they've often expressed their goal to create an Islamic theocracy as rapidly and as thoroughly as possible.

Exactly how they intend to accomplish their goal, though, is fascinating - and, just possibly, may work out somewhat differently from what they intend.

Mohammad Goes to the Polls

We are not gifted with skills in Arabic; fortunately, Sami al-Abas has provided a translation of an important editorial by senior Muslim Brotherhood [MB] member Issam al-Aryan published in Dar al-Hayat, a London-based Arabic paper.  In it, al-Aryan asks how the Brotherhood should pursue and grasp political power.  His suggested answer is fascinating:

It might be better to keep the Muslim Brotherhood as a broad Islamic League even if the political party reaches power and governance, to watch over it and to control the party’s performance with intellectual power and great popularity; [the MB] will support it if it does well, question it if it deviates, hold it accountable if it abuses, and dismiss it through the people’s power if it fails miserably.

In other words, a major MB leader thinks it might be best to simply to stay a political pressure or special-interest group instead of taking actual power.  He argues that the brotherhood should become a sort of Egyptian Moral Majority, if you will.  Not at all the same as the situation in Iran, where ultimate power is formally vested in an Ayatollah, and a council of Muslim imams has power to veto political action on explicitly Islamist grounds.

By definition, the entire purpose of the Iranian government is to eliminate any sort of religious freedom.  Egypt, being mostly Muslim, has strong tendencies in this religiotyrannical direction, but that is not its primary purpose or goal, at least not yet.

If the Brothers intend to refrain from taking direct political power, possibly there may be room for a little diversity, religious and otherwise - that is, if the people of Egypt so choose.

Al-Aryan goes on to say:

As for the Muslim Brotherhood as a popular body, it has the duty to assign some of its members to establish a party, leading in a political function in the competitive partisan field. It does not have the right to stay far from this field after it used to nominate its members for parliament, received more than 20 percent of the seats, and a quarter of a century ago decided to mandate the Guidance Bureau in forming a political party. Now comes the moment of execution.

As for having more than one party, this is a strange and odd policy. How can a popular power that seeks participation in decision making, or entering coalition governments, or even governing by itself, fragment its efforts and disperse votes in favor of the party? The opposite is true, and [forming several parties] is what the duty calls for...

If Egypt needs, five or six major parties can combine or ally, or compete over the trust of the people. Mostly [it seems] the situation will be construed this way, even if tens of parties are established.  [emphasis added]

In other words: yes, the Brotherhood will be involved in politics and it will have its own party (the Freedom and Justice party) - but it will not attempt to eliminate all other parties.  Quite the contrary: it would ally with other parties as circumstances dictate.

This matters enormously, perhaps more than al-Aryan realizes.  Simply by the existence of competition, all the competitors will improve and will be forced to deliver something of value to the voters.  That's true in commerce, and it's equally true in politics: one-party states can do whatever they like and nobody can do anything about them, but multi-party democracies must respond to the desires of the people.

Competition Is Everything

The Chinese Communists are encountering this problem.  China has been a one-party state for many years, but corruption has become such a problem that the top leadership is deeply concerned about finding a way to make mayors, governors, and local functionaries accountable to the people they serve.  The very heart of Red China has experimented with local elections - yes, all candidates are members of the Communist Party, but there's still some degree of choice between rivals.

It's possible to imagine a future China in which everyone is a member of "the Communist Party" but there are various visible factions inside the party that compete for votes and power.  It might look a little odd, but the effect might not be that different from a normal party-political system.  After all, the same personal career incentives that push individual Democrat officeholders to want to beat their Republican challengers would still be at work in China.

Over time, these embryonic Chinese factions would develop their own policy platforms, offering them to the people to choose between.  The gap could only widen, for the same reason that Republicans and Democrats have to have policies that visibly differ: if they're the same, why choose one over the other?  Again, such competition could only benefit the people.

By choosing to support the idea of party competition and simply backing whichever seems like a good idea at the time, the Muslim Brotherhood has chosen a path of power without direct accountability and responsibility.  This might seem dangerous, but actually it's good: the mere existence of real competition will naturally lead to better governance, more reflective of the wishes of the Egyptian people.

Now, this just leaves the problem of what those wishes are: a clear majority of Egyptians wants to repudiate their peace treaty with Israel.  Hitler won elections too, and German voters were in favor of kicking some French butt.  The Nazis were on a roll for a long time, but despite doing things democratically (at least at first), things didn't work out all that well in the end.

The California experience shows that popular democracy makes it much easier to give the people what they want than what they ought to have - but as Winston Churchill said:

Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...