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August 20, 2012

Are Political Developments in Egypt Moving in a Direction that is Inimical to American Interests?

As many commentators feared, political forces historically antagonistic to U.S. policies in the Middle East -- and at best ambiguous in their commitment to human rights and democracy -- have prospered in recent Egyptian elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood-backed Freedom and Justice Party emerged as by far the largest force in elections for a parliament and have gone back on pledge not to field a presidential candidate.  As we all saw, long-time Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was sworn in as President at the end of June.  In addition, more extreme Islamist parties polled very well in elections last November with the Salafi An-Nour party gaining roughly 25% of the seats in the parliament – recently dissolved by Egypt’s ruling military council, backed by a ruling from the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Douglas Schoen and Randall Lane rightly predicted a year ago that this portends trouble for U.S. policy in the months and years ahead.  At the time their poll was released, I criticized it – writing in a blog that I thought it was too early to predict what the elections would mean for U.S. policy, and I criticized the poll in strong language.  While much is still uncertain, I retract that statement, and have removed my blog post from our site.  (Mssrs. Schoen and Lane got it right; my apologies to them.)

The central question now is whether Mubarak's increasingly corrupt and erratic authoritarianism was worse for U.S. interests than the emergence of a democratic government in Egypt, even one led by the Muslim Brotherhood?  The form of government Mubarak represented was corrosive to human rights, an obstacle to democratic development in Egypt and throughout the region and inimical to U.S. interests since we were inextricably bound up with the regime's misdeeds and their malign consequences.

The results of the first round of elections should not be over interpreted.  The presidential elections in May and June had very different results – with Morsi scoring a narrow victory in a run-off against a candidate identified with the Mubarak era and votes in the first round being closely split between four main candidates – from the Islamist landslide of just six months earlier. Egyptians are likely to be voting frequently for the next two years and it would probably be an understatement to characterize Egyptian politics as volatile.

Nonetheless, Islamic extremism is a threat to democratic transition in Egypt. In its few months of existence, members of the Islamist dominated parliament put forward proposals that would have been harmful to women’s rights and the rights of religious minorities. The constituent assembly charged with writing Egypt’s new constitution has favored proposals that would constrain freedom of expression.  There are many reasons to be concerned about some of these proposals becoming laws.

Egypt’s best hope for a successful transition resides in moving forward with the process of further rounds of elections. Political parties with Islamist roots, like the Freedom and Justice Party, must be included while insisting that such inclusion requires the commitment in words and deeds of all parties to basic democratic principles, including non-violence and adherence to constitutional and international standards upholding basic rights and freedoms and outlawing discrimination.

Many will doubt the sincerity of any commitment that Islamist parties might make. However, the alternative of exclusion and repression has already been tried in Egypt and many other parts of the Middle East and it has led to stagnation, corruption and decline.

Advancing Egypt’s democratic transition will require that the Egyptian authorities and people rise to the challenge presented by anti-democratic forces in their midst with more democracy. Binding safeguards for basic rights and freedoms for all Egyptians must be enshrined in a new constitution and new laws, upheld by a stronger more independent judiciary. Free media, independent civil society organizations and the many institutions of free societies must be permitted to take root and flourish. These are the defining values and institutions of free, democratic societies and the best defenses against tyranny and extremism in Egypt and everywhere.