The blessings of the new Islamist Egypt
Since the cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, everybody is talking about Egypt’s positive role in the diplomatic effort that put an end to the bloodshed in Gaza. The country’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has particularly emerged as an effective mediator. “I want to thank President Morsi,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence.”
However, Western expectations about an Egypt ruled by Islamist politicians such as Morsi were very bleak until very recently. In fact, during the long decades before the Arab Spring, secular dictators such as Hosni Mubarak were rather hailed for keeping the Islamists in check, if not in jail and torture chambers. During the revolutions that toppled Western-friendly tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt, some “Middle East experts” warned of a dark future for the region. Israel, they said in particular, would be encircled by wild-eyed fanatics who would lovingly kill themselves en masse in order to kill the Jews.
In return, other observers of the Middle East, including my humble self, have argued that the suppression of the Islamists by secular dictators was not a solution, but in fact the very problem. It was one of main reasons that made Islamist parties and groups angry, strident and sometimes violent. Coming to power with democratic vote, we also argued, would force the Islamists to become more responsible and thus moderate actors. I had a particularly Turkish perspective which compelled me to think that way: The evolution of political Islam in Turkey has proven, in my eyes, that the cure to the radicalism of the Islamists was to include them in the political system. Today, the AKP, the incumbent Justice and Development Party (which is still too “Islamist” for Turkey’s hardcore secularists) is much more pragmatic and moderate than its Islamist predecessors, for it was given the chance to grow pragmatic and moderate. Had Turkey not had free and fair elections since 1950, and had Islamic ideas and sentiments not been allowed to find a place under the sun, Turkey’s Islamists, too, would be much less reasonable.
None of this means that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and its parallels in other Arab countries, will become pro-Western liberals overnight, or even in the long run. (Being “pro-Western” and “liberal” can be very different things, by the way.) But political power through democratic means will force them to see political realities and adapt to them. Banning alcohol in Egypt, a standard Islamist goal, will become less attractive because of the harm it will do to the tourism industry. And chanting “down with Israel” will prove to be ineffective, leading to more sober analysis of how Arabs should stand for Palestinian rights with sober tools such diplomacy, lobbying and soft power.
That is why I welcome the new Islamist Egypt, if you will, and its contribution to the crisis of the Middle East. Unlike some commentators in Turkey who complain that this new Egypt has overshadowed Ankara’s role in the region, I feel glad for the region. (Putting an end to killings is more important than who helped accomplish it.) Moreover, I know that any peace, or at least truce, the Islamists will achieve with Israel will have more credibility in the eyes of their peoples than the credibility of their secular predecessors.