The Caravan

The Challenge of the “New Islamists:” How to Deal with Islamists Empowered through the Ballot Box

Friday, August 10, 2012

For more than two hundred years, the United States has talked with Islamists in power. What separates that historical experience with today’s challenge is that U.S. leaders are facing with increasing frequency the unique set of problems posed by Islamists who come to power via the ostensibly democratic means of popular elections. Because of this, the “New Islamists” can claim a certain legitimacy that empowered Islamists previously could not assert.

The Arab uprisings of 2010-2012 have injected a new dimension to America’s engagement with Islamists in power. Neither the Saudis nor the Iranians – the archetypal cases of contemporary Islamist regimes – base their claim to legitimacy on a traditional democratic foundation. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a tribal/religious monarchy and while the Islamic Republic of Iran may call itself a “republic,” it is such in name only, with the “rule of the jurisconsult” – vilayet faqih – supreme above the president and parliament. Similarly, other Islamist rulers – in Gaza and Sudan, for example – have never put their hold on power to a free, fair and contested vote. But the Islamist leaders who have emerged in Tunisia and Egypt – and those who may emerge elsewhere in the region, such as Syria – are different. While their hold on power is uncertain, and their commitment to democracy, human rights and liberal values highly suspect they have a legitimacy that comes from popular revolution and internationally recognized election victories that earlier Islamists could not claim.

Their ascent to power confronts America with what one might call “the democracy conundrum” – how to deal with non-democratic governments who come to power via ostensibly democratic means? Should America’s focus be to celebrate the process of change? Or should U.S. policy be principally wary of the suspect beneficiaries of that historic change? Or, alternatively, should the U.S. place its bets on the transformative power of government to alter the character of non-democratic movements and render them, through the practice and experience of governing, moderate and democratic?

I dispense with the third option, which represents the conquest of hope over experience. There is now considerable experience with unabashedly Islamist government over the last thirty years – in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, and Gaza, for example – and in none of these cases have the ruling Islamists shed their ideology in favor of a more practical, non-ideological commitment to effective government, i.e., the “garbage collection thesis.”

As to the balance between the celebration of democratic process and opposition to its beneficiaries, there is a useful historical model upon which Washington could draw that offers a guide to effective interaction with advocates of a socio-political ideology that is fundamentally antithetical to the one America espouses and that is how the United States talked with Communists in power. The analogy is not perfect; Communists did not often come to power through the ballot box. But over the years, Washington honed a policy toward Communist regimes that mixed realism, patience, strategic clarity that sowed the seeds for the demise of the Communists and the emergence of liberal alternatives. That is precisely the formula the United States should apply to dealing with Islamists in power, even (perhaps especially) those who come to power via popular elections.

Take Egypt, for example, a country whose large population and geographic location make it too big to fail. Washington should be willing to work cooperatively with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government to avert economic collapse but only based on a clear understanding of common interest. For the United States, these include religious tolerance and political pluralism at home (codewords for protection for Egypt’s Christians and practical and effective guarantees that Egypt’s first real election in 7,000 years will not be its last) and internationally, security cooperation and counter-terrorism coordination with the United States and fidelity to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Without Egypt’s willingness to implement policies in accordance with these interests, the United States should be firm in withholding an economic lifeline to the regime. If such a policy is maintained over time, both America’s vital interests will be secured and non-Islamists will have the time to develop and compete for political power. It is not a deal the Islamists will like but it is one they will have to accept.

Of course, some will debate whether the Muslim Brothers who now hold sway over Egypt’s government are non-democratic; after all, it is said, they won a reasonably clean election. In my view, their historical commitment to Islamist supremacy – “Islam is the Solution!” – leavened with their long-held anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, misogynistic views, trumps whatever democratic credentials they earn by their willingness to use the opportunity of popular elections to achieve their political objectives. Several elections from now, after there have been a couple of peaceful alternations in power between Islamists and their non-Islamist political opponents, there may be enough evidence to compel me to change my opinion.

Robert Satloff is the executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.