Freaking Out Over Egypt’s Islamists

Every now and again, my inbox becomes the victim of interest group spam. Most recently, a rogue, unsolicited email reached me with urgent news from a conservative website: Not only had Egypt elected an evil Islamist as its new president but our own president, Barack Obama, had called to congratulate him! Gasp! We can only assume now that the reign of Sharia law will race through the world, wiping out Israeland the Western world in its path!

Morsi at the press conference on June 18, 2012 as he announces himself president, after the second round of Egypt’s presidential elections. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Rashad)

Or so this hysterical article would have you believe.

The reality is yes, the new president of Egypt, Mohammed Mursi, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood: an Islamist organization, with illiberal views on women’s rights and gay rights and not too fond views of Israel or the United States. And it is important to remember these facts and not try to whitewash the organization’s image as some group of progressive reformers. Liberals and progressives should be putting their support behind the Egypt’s secular left instead, of course.

That being said, Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood are far from the menacing theocrats that many American conservative (and some democrats) paint them as. They have vowed to honor all standing treaties and look pretty much to follow the moderate foreign policy of the Erodgan regime in Turkey. The Brotherhood is nowhere near as conservative as the Egyptian Salafists, and realizes the political/electoral limitations of taking hardline conservative stances. In other words, many of their past hardline views have been moderated by the realities of politics.

In addition, the Brotherhood isn’t the only game in town. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) still retains much power and is arguably more anathema to democracy and liberty than the Brotherhood is at this time.  Mostly recently, SCAF edited the new constitution to greatly limit the powers of the presidency.

So perhaps most likely to emerge from Egypt is a state balanced between its secular yet authoritarian military establishment and its Islamist-leaning civilian government (again, much like contemporary Turkey).

But even if Egypt became a state solely run by its Islamist civilian government, within a greater perspective, what’s the big deal? The same thought comes to mind when talk of incorporating the Taliban into the Afghan government via a peace deal is described as tantamount to accommodations and surrender to Islamic extremism.

Yet one major point comes to mind when faced with these criticisms: is the United States and the Western World not long-time allies with perhaps the most Islamist regime in the world: Saudi Arabia? And one thing is clear: whatever regime gains traction in Egypt, it will be far from the illiberalism and repression of Saudi Arabia.

So what does this all mean? Should we simply accept the reality of Islamist politics in all of these countries, even if it means oppression of women and minorities? Or should we proclaim these regimes enemies of freedom and cut off diplomatic ties? Well, as usual, this is a false dichotomy, often repeated throughout the media. Although each case is different, a vague, general rule would be: continue diplomatic ties with these regimes while at the same time encouraging reform within. In the case of Egypt, the post-Mubarak years hold much promise for the growth of democracy and liberalism in the Arab world. It should not be stifled by Western hysteria or naivete  in foreign policy.