How to include Islamists in real Arab democracies

The passage in late March of constitutional amendments allowing for early parliamentary and presidential elections in Egypt has revived concerns about the impact of likely major electoral successes for Islamist parties in emerging Arab democracies.

Some Egyptian reformers had warned that at least a year was needed to allow new political parties to begin to function. As things stand, there are only two well-organized parties in Egypt: the discredited former ruling National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. The NDP probably still has some constituency and could remain a presence in the new parliament. But the deeper concern is that the only opposition group well positioned at this early stage to launch an effective nationwide campaign is the Brotherhood.

The demonstrations that ousted President Hosni Mubarak were not driven by Islamist rhetoric or ideology; they were secular, ecumenical and patriotic. However, the Muslim Brotherhood has the national infrastructure to campaign village by village, and it has a history of providing basic social services like health and education that the government has often failed to secure.

Because they have never held power anywhere outside of Gaza, Arab Sunni Islamists can claim the mantle of good governance, invoking the silly but commonplace idea that the devout are, by definition, honest. And while Islamist ideology didn’t carry much sway with the urban demonstrators in Tahrir Square, it might have much broader appeal in villages generally not part of the anti-Mubarak uprising.

So, there is every indication that the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to perform extremely well in early Egyptian elections. But is that a reason for alarm? After all, the religious right will have to be a part of any genuinely democratic order, as long as it is unarmed and plays by constitutional rules. Like all other parties, it has every right to stand for elections and seek a popular mandate for governance.

Some American observers such as Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy advocate “discriminate democracy,” which he has defined as a “democracy for all but the Islamists.” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has bluntly written that the prospect of Islamists coming to power might threaten Israel and therefore Egyptian democracy is to be feared and rejected.

These are ridiculous arguments. There is a robust religious right in Israel, heavily represented in the current Israeli cabinet, that has propagated perfectly outrageous policies regarding the Palestinians, peace and Israeli minority groups. Is that a reason to reject democracy in Israel? There is also a robust and pernicious religious right in the United States, represented by demagogues such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, but their presence is hardly an argument for scrapping the Constitution.

The concern about Islamists and democracy is wrongly framed as the threat of “one man, one vote, one time,” as if Islamists generally intended to hold only one election, seize power and then shut down the process altogether. I think this is a serious misreading of the actual strategy of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It appears that most Arabs, including Islamists, have understood that governmental legitimacy requires elections, and that can’t be based on only one election. On the contrary, the Brotherhood seems to have a quiet confidence that it can consistently do well in elections over time, and that this is sufficient to pursue its agenda, at least at this stage.

The real challenge is very different: it is that the other side of the democratic coin – the need to restrain the power of democratically-elected majorities – is far less well understood or accepted. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is currently embroiled in a ridiculous debate about whether a woman or a Christian might one day serve as Egyptian president. Other than ruling parties and families, Arabs generally seem to have embraced the idea that elections are essential for legitimacy. But the need to protect the rights of individuals, minorities, women and others from potentially tyrannous majorities has not penetrated sufficiently.

Should democracies featuring regular, free and fair elections take hold in key Arab states such as Egypt, the challenge will probably not be a shutting down of the electoral process. It will be maintaining and enforcing restraint on the powers of potentially tyrannous majorities over individuals, women and minorities. Democracy promotion work in the Arab world, both internal and external, should move quickly away from an already established consensus in favor of elections, and begin to focus on the equally vital need to put clear limitations on the powers of democratically-elected majorities.

Under such circumstances, with strong constitutional limitations on the power of democratically-elected governments in place, backed up by neutral militaries committed to defending the Constitution rather than the regime, it should be possible to reconcile robust Islamist parties with real, functional democracy in the Arab world.