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Rethinking Islamism in the Age of Arab Protest

02/03/2012

In the last few days, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has probably racked up more air-time and page-space in the Western media than the sum total accrued in its eighty-year history. On the one hand, we have been invited to consider a succession of worst case scenarios. If Mubarak goes, you get the Brotherhood. If you get the Brotherhood, you lose the Camp David Accords and any hope of containing Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. The quid pro quo is usually capped with a pensive reference to the Suez Canal, and perhaps the status of women. To reckon with alternative outcomes is to fudge the issue. “Baloney and wishful thinking aside”, confirms Leslie Gelb of the Council of Foreign Relations, “the MB would be calamitous for U.S. security”.

When not cited in the service of apocalyptic visions, the Brotherhood is often mentioned in order to scold us for thinking about the Brotherhood at all. For one commentator, the prospect of Islamists benefitting from the protests is the “delusion-de-jour”.

Underlying this surface noise is a significant tension. If – and this is a big ‘if’ – the wave of democratic expression currently sweeping the region is converted into genuine political pluralism, Islamist movements of various stripes are likely to take on a new prominence. That would be a phenomenon of some importance. At the same time, there are reasons to expect that their contribution to politics in a new Egypt (or Tunisia, or Jordan) would be less dramatic than some fear.

Certainly in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is well organised and has a substantial constituency: the secular voices making themselves heard on Facebook and Twitter represent a very specific section of the 80 million population. The fact that the Brotherhood secured 20% of the seats in 2005 parliamentary elections, in a context of both official manipulation and internal self-limitation, gives some idea of its potential in a democratic context. But the movement does not command the kind of mandate that would allow it to ride roughshod over the existing political landscape.

Generalised, non-ideological breakdowns in state-society relations of the kind that deposed Ben Ali, and have consumed Egypt in the past week, call for political balancing between a range of elements. In a democratic post-Mubarak Egypt, the Brotherhood would be just one voice vying for the people’s allegiance, alongside Ayman Nour’s Ghad (Tomorrow) party, and the National Association for Change of Mohamed El-Baradei. The latter in particular has marked himself out as a plausible consensus candidate, to whom even the Brotherhood pays a certain amount of obeisance.

Then there are the powerful vested interests that a fleeing dictator leaves in his wake, long after boarding the jet to Saudi Arabia. The business establishment (often including leading figures in the armed forces) are tied to world markets, and therefore unlikely to acquiesce in radical reorientations with international consequences. Prosaic questions of economy and governance also assert themselves against the demands of ideology. Steps that might endanger US aid packages suddenly become less attractive.

Democratic opening in the Arab world offers neither a ‘post-Islamist’ dream nor a theocratic nightmare. But for the United States, the uncertainties of a new paradigm must be weighed against the record of the past few decades. It is these days a platitude that autocracy’s promise of stability and security has delivered neither, and the moral cost of ‘the devil we know’ has been great indeed. Regardless of what may yet be achieved on the streets of Cairo, it’s time for some hard thinking.