The political revolution in Egypt and its spread to other parts of the Islamic sphere have riveted the world and its media. Where is all of this headed? Nobody really knows. Not the commentators, not the intelligence community, not in the West, not in the East, not the Egyptians, and not the media.
This is no small issue, for Egypt has often set the political tone for the whole of the Middle East. Today Baghdad is in chaos. Amman and the king of Jordan, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Bahrain are all swaying in the wind. Beirut has already fallen to Hezbollah extremists. Gaza has fallen to Hamas. We are living on the fault line of an earthquake.
The Obama administration and the media talk about Egypt as if it is on the verge of democracy, but former British Prime Minister Tony Blair put his finger on the fallacy: "You don't just have a government and a movement for democracy. You also have others, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, who would take this in a different direction." His concern is that democracy in Egypt may well be an interim phase en route to a new dictatorship predicated on extremist Islam. Democracy is not achieved by opening voting booths. A responsible democracy requires laws and their enforcement to ensure that the voting is incorruptible and the results are representative. There has to be an independent judiciary, the rule of law, an open, plural, and independent press, and a culture of human rights. For all the euphoria of a spontaneous uprising, it cannot just be assumed that Egypt now has these elements or a political culture that can sustain a liberal democratic regime. Only a few revolutions develop as well as the one that began in Boston in 1775; others (Paris 1789, Moscow 1917, Teheran 1979) were, shall we say, a disappointment.
Nobody knows the true strength of the Muslim Brotherhood among the young or in Egyptian society as a whole. Nobody knows what the composition of the next Egyptian parliament might be, once it is elected in free, rather than fraudulent, elections. What we do know is that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only organized force within the opposition and as such has the best chance to exploit the post-revolutionary confusion. In the aftermath of a revolution, the people who seize power need not be the most popular, only the most organized, and in Egypt that is the Muslim Brotherhood. It believes in what? It believes in an Islamic democracy based on the principles of sharia, or Islamic law, and the investiture of a supreme guide—something eerily similar to Iran's Islamic state. Islam has a unique appeal in Egypt and indeed in the broader Arab world where secular dictators ruled for decades except in the mosques, which they were unable to close. So the mosques became the center of political activism and Islam the doctrine of opposition.
The Brotherhood opposes a secular state as well as Western civilization, but supports taqiyya, which means lying is allowed if it helps to ultimately defeat the infidels. As for the Brotherhood mellowing, a notion that is the love child of our mass media, this mostly reflects the organization's recruitment of media-savvy spokesmen, who can espouse the virtues of a pro-democracy platform as a smokescreen for the group's real views and intentions.
Polls in Egypt reveal that the people want democracy—but that they also want an Islamic state with sharia and all of its restraints on minorities, religion, and women. As Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said this month, "The Muslim Brotherhood is not, as some suggest, simply an Egyptian version of the March of Dimes." Opinion polls of Egyptians in past years indicate that 60 percent or more support Islamists and favor the re-establishment of a single Islamic state, or caliphate. In a Pew poll last spring, fully three quarters of Egyptians said they favored strict sharia punishments, and of those who saw a struggle between fundamentalists and groups that want to modernize the country, only 27 percent favored modernizers. Half expressed favorable views of Hamas, 30 percent Hezbollah, and 20 percent al-Qaeda. If these convictions or inclinations govern Egypt's future politics, ousted President Hosni Mubarak's military authoritarianism might well be replaced by Islamic authoritarianism.
Remember when Egyptians had the chance to choose their legislators in 2005? Where they could, they favored the totalitarian Muslim Brotherhood. If that happens again, the United States' greatest ally in the region will become its greatest enemy, and Israel's peace partner will become its greatest foe. As Bernard Lewis, the renowned historian of Islam, said recently: "Many of our so-called friends in the region are inefficient kleptocracies. But they're better than the Islamic radicals." It's a judgment that is well captured in the phrase "the evil of two lessers."
We should not do anything that would strengthen Islamic, pro-Iranian, anti-American political parties. That is what happened in Iran, where the Islamists took over with their powerful and disciplined forces, killing or exiling secular pro-democratic politicians; in the Gaza Strip, where premature legislative elections gave a victory to Hamas; and in Lebanon, where the government is now dominated by Hezbollah. All these parties pledged nonviolence, only to reveal that those who murder can surely lie. The leader or supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mohammed Badie, made no bones about it in a sermon last year: "The history of freedom is not written in ink but in blood." Exploiting the democratic process to establish an Islamic regime is the Brotherhood's entryway to power.
Think of what would happen if Iran poured millions and millions of dollars into the Muslim Brotherhood so it could disburse the money to the vast proportions of the Egyptian population who live on less than $2 a day in order to influence the election. Then we may recall the words of the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats: "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned."
How would America handle such a catastrophe? How would it react to a leadership committed to the decapitation or stoning of gays, adulterers, and apostates; that endorses amputating the limbs of petty thieves; and that sanctifies suicide bombings and promotes genocide? Remember what happened in Gaza in 2006 when there was a reckless rush to elections without a foundation of democratic institutions. Once Hamas was in power, its version of democracy included throwing political rivals off rooftops, shooting opponents in the kneecaps, and executing women. The Hamas-dominated Palestinian parliament has not convened in the three years since that violence, and Hamas leaders say the party will boycott elections that the Palestinian Authority has called for.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has wisely resisted playing to the gallery on Egypt. "It needs to be an orderly, peaceful transition to real democracy," she said early this month. "Not faux democracy." This is the heart of the matter. America cannot sanctify an election process and ignore the risks of the outcome.
Egyptian society needs time to prepare for elections and to remediate the effects of years of government oppression. Non-Islamist parties must have an opportunity to emerge and fill in the intervening political space to compete with the Brotherhood. We must give secular democrats a chance, for if Egypt's revolution is usurped by the Brotherhood, the emergence of an autocratic strongman, far worse than Mubarak, will only be a matter of time. The test is not the first election, but rather whether there can be a second fair election.
The most reliable institution in Egypt is the army. It is the anchor of stability, continuity, and, ironically enough, peace as well. Its popular image is "defender of the homeland," and its veterans are perceived as war heroes. Properly inspired, the Egyptian army can provide a bridge to a future civilian government in Cairo. It can play a vital role in modernizing Egyptian society and checking the excesses of religious politics. It can introduce a new constitution that enjoys broad support and includes checks and balances that would make it difficult for minorities to rule majorities.
President Obama might well recall what he wrote in Foreign Affairs in the summer of 2007: "In the Islamic world and beyond, combating the terrorists' prophets of fear will require more than lectures on democracy." The United States must pay attention to its interests—which coincide with its values. A Brotherhood government would assault individual liberty and would be a disaster for the United States. It would be able to deploy one of the strongest militaries in the region, built on some of the most advanced American-made platforms. It would support terrorism efforts worldwide and combat antiterrorism efforts. It would strengthen Hamas and undermine the PLO. It would put Jordan's King Abdullah under even more pressure. It would threaten Israel in the short run, and in the long run might expose Israel to another "1948 moment" in the form of a multifront war, with overwhelming odds.
America needs to be on the right side of human rights. It also needs to be on the right side of history. Our interests and our values are at stake in the outcome of the revolution taking place in Egypt, where our policies should reflect the advice: "Do not take the slightest risk of a catastrophic outcome."