For months, the Bush administration has said it is serious about pushing for democracy in the Middle East. It’s about to get a serious test of that resolve.
Egypt, the world’s most populous Arab country, is suddenly roiling with a wide-open, combative election that seems certain to end with the country’s main Islamic group, the banned Muslim Brotherhood, as a big winner.
The country’s rulers, longtime American allies, are starting to show signs of panic: Police have barred voters from polls and shot tear gas and thugs have attacked Brotherhood supporters in recent days in an apparent effort to blunt the group’s growing momentum.
Even before the final round of voting Thursday, Brotherhood loyalists — who run as independents — have increased their seats in parliament fivefold. That’s not enough to unseat the ruling party, but is still seen as a harsh slap to President Hosni Mubarak.
In some ways, despite the violence, it’s going as well as President Bush could hope. A scant nine months after Mubarak took the first steps toward reform under U.S. pressure, it is indisputably clear that Egyptians hanker for choice and change, the very roots of democracy.
Yet, two things about the elections could prove deeply worrisome for the West:
One is the Brotherhood itself, and what it might do now that it has gained enough power to influence government policy in a secular system it opposes.
The second is the turmoil Egypt likely would face during any transition, as the aging Mubarak and his long-ruling elite struggle to decide whether to give up power, and if so, how much and how fast.
That second issue hits close to home for American interests.
While Bush says it was hypocritical for the U.S. to forgo pressing democratic reform on authoritarian regimes like those in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in return for support on other issues, Washington still needs a few Arab allies at a time al-Qaida loyalists are active, Iran is increasingly combative toward Israel, and Iraq continues to be bloody.
A chaotic Egyptian government, torn by infighting, would be bad for America, unable or unwilling to help with Arab-Israeli peace or Iraqi reconciliation. Yet a U.S. retreat on democracy would reinforce the view of many Arabs who are suspicious of American motives in the region.
So far, the Bush administration has stressed that it just wants a free and fair vote. It sees no distinction between legal candidates and those who support the Brotherhood and “does not have a preferred outcome,” says State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.
Some U.S. officials argue, in fact, that the only way to demythologize groups like the Brotherhood is to bring them into a legal political system and let people judge them on how they actually govern.
Americans uneasy with Brotherhood
Still, there is American discomfort with the Brotherhood, a group that will almost certainly be less accommodating than Mubarak on issues like Israel and that advocates the veil for women.
Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mehdi Akef said in an interview Sunday that his group would not press to reverse Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, now that it has greater influence in parliament. But he made clear it is not friendly to Israel either.
“We do not recognize Israel, but we will not fight it,” he said.
Some worry the Brotherhood’s more-moderate current stance — it renounced violence in the 1970s and says it wants to create an Islamic state through peaceful means — is just a smoke screen.
Asked about the Brotherhood earlier this fall, Elizabeth Cheney, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for the region and the vice president’s daughter, said there are “serious questions” about whether such groups will protect women’s rights and religious freedom if they take power.
In reality, many Egyptians who voted for the Brotherhood did so not because they want an Islamic government but to protest a Mubarak regime seen as widely corrupt.
“They represent a clear and simple ’no’ vote against a status quo that few favor,” said Haim Malka at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.
But despite Brotherhood promises of moderation, governments with strong Islamic bents could still “intimidate their opponents into silence, curtail rights for women and minorities and increase aid to violent groups,” Malka said.