February 1, 2011 | Quote

Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther, and the Muslim Brotherhood

 Like Reihan and Alex Massie, I’ve been curious to know what Reuel Marc Gerecht — former CIA officer, Islam expert, and robust supporter of Arab democracy — thinks about the extraordinary events convulsing Egypt. Gerecht combines a staunch belief in the inevitability of Middle East democratization with a sober-minded realism about its probable consequences. Back in the heady “Arab Spring” days of 2005 — before Iraq became an abattoir of sectarian bloodletting, before an Islamist group captured roughly 20 percent of all seats in the Egyptian national assembly, and before the Palestinians elected Hamas — he rebuffed the notion that somehow the region could embrace genuine democratic pluralism while keeping religious fundamentalists on the sidelines. “The history of democratic Christendom,” Gerecht wrote in The Weekly Standard, suggests that “you don’t get to arrive at Thomas Jefferson unless you first pass through Martin Luther.”

In other words, during the infant stages of Arab democracy, we should not anticipate a dominant performance by the secular liberals popular among Washington think-tankers. The political success of devout Muslims will trigger all manner of alarm in Western capitals. (Witness the reaction to Iraq’s first free elections, which empowered a slew of religious parties.) Yet Gerecht argues that, over the long haul, drawing Islamic fundamentalists into the cross-pollinating world of democratic competition is essential to defusing the ideological appeal of jihadism.

What about the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which Gerecht has described as “the fount of all Sunni fundamentalists”? The Brotherhood represents Egypt’s “most organized non-state political force,” observes Noah Millman. In the 2005 national elections, its candidates (running as “independents”) secured approximately one-fifth of all parliamentary seats, despite violent government harassment at the polls. Under a truly free, democratic political order, wouldn’t Brotherhood influence balloon? And wouldn’t that be a disaster?

“I fully expect the Muslim Brotherhood to do well in any election,” Gerecht tells me. “They have a fairly substantial following.” He has no illusions about the group’s Islamist agenda, or about its virulent anti-Americanism, or about its hatred of Israel. In his view, calling for U.S. “engagement” with the Brotherhood is like calling for engagement with Ayatollah Khamenei. But Gerecht insists that allowing Brotherhood members to participate in a democratic process is the sine qua non of Egyptian political maturation. The country will never achieve real progress, he says, without first creating the political space necessary for a momentous debate over God and man. Indeed, Egypt’s secular liberals must defeat the Islamists in the public square, rather than through military repression. They must win the battle of ideas.

For decades, Gerecht notes, U.S. policymakers of all stripes nurtured the hope that an “Arab Atatürk” would emerge to catalyze piecemeal liberalization within the stable confines of an autocratic system. This way, the theory went, democratization could unfold gradually, and the threat of an Islamist election victory would be neutralized. It was a nice idea. Unfortunately, the Arab Atatürk has proved to be a chimera. While U.S. officials were waiting for Godot, brutal dictatorships were creating fertile ground for jihadist recruitment.

Take the Mubarak regime. No doubt, its maintenance of the 1979 Egypt–Israel peace treaty has greatly bolstered regional stability, and its adoption of prudent economic reforms has aided GDP growth. Yet its iron-fisted subjugation of the Brotherhood and other Islamists contributed significantly to the development of al-Qaeda, and its pragmatic approach to Israel should not be confused with an enlightened attitude toward Jews. Under Mubarak’s watch, says Gerecht, Egypt has become the Middle East’s leading bastion of anti-Semitism, which functions as “a currency of legitimacy” for the ruling government.

Still, shouldn’t we be profoundly nervous about a post-Mubarak transition? “It is unquestionably going to be a rollercoaster ride for the United States,” Gerecht admits. “This is the price you pay when a detested authoritarian regime is the indispensable pillar of stability in the Middle East.” Among Arab countries, Egypt boasts the oldest liberal tradition; but that tradition has been pulverized by the dictatorship. Gerecht stresses that the Muslim Brotherhood has “evolved” considerably and is far from a monolithic bloc. Yet he also acknowledges that Western fears of a Brotherhood-led government are amply justified.

While democratic elections do not necessarily promote stability — indeed, they can dramatically disrupt short-term stability — they do “allow for the evolution of these societies.” Luckily for us, Gerecht adds, the democratic wave is crashing before the Muslim Middle East goes nuclear. Our biggest concern isn’t really the outcome of the first free Egyptian election; it’s preventing the cancellation or theft of the second free election (and the third, and the fourth, etc.).

If Egyptians voted the Brotherhood into a position of serious power, that would generate a kaleidoscope of problems for America and Israel (and Egypt). No serious analyst should pretend otherwise. But Gerecht’s logic is inescapable: You can’t have authentic Egyptian democracy while disenfranchising the country’s largest opposition movement. If you aren’t willing to countenance Brotherhood electoral participation, you shouldn’t be demanding representative government.

On balance, then, the nascent Egyptian revolution holds both great promise and great peril. Speaking to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius at the World Economic Forum retreat in Davos, an Egyptian business executive said of regime change in his home country, “Long term, it’s good; short term, it’s bad.”