Critics of Egyptian Democracy: Fear of Muslim Brothers

February 1, 2011

Warnings that democracy will turn Egypt into a dangerous theocracy has been heard for a long time, but with the Egyptian people strongly intent on winning back their rights, those concerns seem this week to be everywhere.  Nowhere is this fear of Egyptian democracy is being heard loudest than here in the U.S. media.

This concern isn’t limited to the American right: In today’s Washington Post, liberal columnist Richard Cohen expresses his fears that Islamist influence in a democratic Egypt would endanger Israel.

The problem is, to all these critics, the only options facing Egyptians are Mubarak or Islamists. That is simply wrong.  Egyptian aspirations for democracy have simmered for too long for outsiders to block it by playing on the same fears that have helped maintain an autocrat in power for three decades.

Let’s start with the obvious: For Amnesty International, this is not a relevant issue.  As a human rights organization, we focus on preventing and documenting human rights abuses.  That is one reason why we don’t call for Mubarak’s resignation; our interest is stopping the torture, unfair trials, arbitrary and prolonged detentions and abuses of freedom of speech, association and religion that fall under his or any other regime.

Secondly, the fears expressed about the Muslim Brothers overstate the group’s current position.  After decades of attempts to muzzle civil society, the Egyptian government has effectively handcuffed most political parties and secular institutions.  One result was to make room for Islamist opposition.  The Muslim Brothers have publicly renounced violence and pledged to work within the political system.

Although officially banned, the Muslim Brothers have survived, are well funded and organized. But they lack sweeping popular support.  In a fair election, the consensus is the MB would win a significant number of seats but wouldn’t come close to a majority.

Egyptian activists on the ground say they are up to the challenge of democracy.  You would expect women to be fearful of the Muslim Brothers.  You also would expect Copt Christians to fear democracy.  And yet there are women all around Tahrir Square this week, and feminists such as Nawal el-Saadawi leading the charge.  “Women and girls are beside boys in the street,” she said.  And there too in the crowd are Copt priests expressing unity with imams.

To state the obvious, things haven’t worked too well for either Egyptian women or Copts under Mubarak.   Both have suffered from poor economic leadership and autocratic government rule.  Both have been sacrificed when Egyptian leaders have looked to exploit politically marginal groups to maintain their power.

I won’t deny that the Muslim Brothers promote some policies I personally find abhorrent.  They represent only one voice in a much more heterogeneous Muslim world.  I remember Nawal el-Saadawi running circles around one imam on a televised debate.  But that’s the point.  The Egyptian people can meet the challenges that are incumbent upon a democratic society. It’s time they get that opportunity.

Note: At a meeting of the AIUSA Board of Directors meeting this past weekend, the board passed a letter addressed to the Egyptian ambassador expressing solidarity with protestors. The Board also passed a letter to the Tunisian ambassador calling for reform of the security forces.