With the Islamist wave rolling through the Middle East—and Egypt’s disturbing turn toward more radical elements dismissive of democracy, tolerance, and liberalism—it is easy to dismiss democratization as foolish, and instead long for the days of the Arab strongman. This would be short-sighted.
Islamist strength is less a reflection of their ideology, and more a reaction to the hatred of the dictators who preceded them. As Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim has said, the Middle East’s autocrats and theocrats are mirror images of each other; both recruit off hatred of the other and target the liberals in between. Perhaps one of the reasons why the disorganized secular opposition did so poorly in Egypt is simply because they never had sustained support to enable them to organize. Even as George W. Bush spoke of the need for reform, the U.S. embassy in Egypt actually went so far as to offer the Mubarak regime veto power over which independent civil society projects it funded.
Nor is the problem just Islamism. Rather, it is the tendency of some Islamists to eschew both democracy and tolerance. Citizens should be equal regardless of their religion or degree of religiosity. That said, not every Islamist party appears as intolerant or insincere with regard to the precepts of democracy as those in Egypt. Jordan has weathered Muslim Brotherhood surges in the past, and allowed them to dissipate when voters held the Islamists to account for disturbing antics and unpopular social interference. Morocco too will weather its Islamist government. The King in Morocco heads religious practice, and so ensures moderation. Moroccan Islamists also appear serious about real reform rather than simply religious populism. Ahead of Morocco’s recent elections, Morocco’s Islamists campaigned on education reform and alleviating the unemployment, and not hatred of non-Muslims. The strength of Jordan and Morocco lies in confidence that Islamists will subordinate themselves to future elections, and thus the public can hold them to account. While policymakers wring their hands over Egypt’s election result, there appears to be very little discussion about how to ensure there will be an election to follow, and the Egyptian radicals simply won’t write a constitution to disadvantage their opponents.
There are three lessons the United States should draw from the Islamist wave:
The first is that the United States must have a proactive strategy to encourage liberalism and ensure the Arab Spring does not turn into a situation of one man, one vote, one time. Alas, while Secretary of State Clinton reacts to events, she has not enunciated her approach to ensure the permanence of the democratic process.
The second is that incitement matters. Many Egyptians truly hate Jews, Americans, and more broadly, Western liberalism. That is because for decades, American officials and diplomats have ignored state-sanctioned incitement, or brushed it off as mere Arab rhetorical flourish. Incitement works, however. Radicals’ indoctrination becomes all the easier if the United States is afraid to engage in the war of ideas on a daily basis. Alas, the State Department may not be up to the task.
Another lesson of the Egyptian election—and one applicable to Libya and Syria as well—is that leading from behind has a cost. The Obama administration has embraced Qatar and even some of Governor Romney’s aides seem high on the Persian Gulf emirate. They seem not to recognize that Qatar has its own agenda and exclusively funds Islamist groups. American diplomats might believe that U.S. inaction enables an even playing field, but sadly they are incorrect: If the Americans are the only ones who do not favor any group, they are in effect throwing what few liberals there are to the wolves, because those whom we work through are not shy about ensuring the Islamists have the means to triumph.
Simply giving up on reform, however, will radicalize the region further and ensure the eventual outcome of the Middle East’s transformation is so much worse.