The dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare… Majority rule is a worthwhile idea. But so, too, are respect for minorities, freedom of religion, the equality of women and adherence to treaties, such as the one with Israel, the only democracy in the region… Those Americans and others who cheer the mobs in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, who clamor for more robust anti-Mubarak statements from the Obama administration, would be wise to let Washington proceed slowly… America needs to be on the right side of human rights. But it also needs to be on the right side of history. This time, the two may not be the same.
What Cohen fails to mention is that one of the reasons there has been such disregard for democracy and minority rights is that the USA has for decades propped up regimes that have denied democracy and ignored rights (often at the behest of Washington). And Cohen’s solution to such tyranny? To continue to disregard democracy and rights, and to prop up authoritarian regimes, because he thinks it is still in America’s interests to do so.
The real problem, as I suggested in my last post, is less the Muslim Brotherhood than fear of the Brotherhood leading to the West attempting to thwart the democratic process in the way that Cohen suggests it should. Not only would such a policy be fundamentally corrupting by denying the right of the Egyptian people to determine their own future, it would also be counterproductive. The consequence of such interference would be to enhance both the moral authority of the Islamists and their claim to power. As Norman Geras puts it in a response to Cohen, ‘One cannot profess democratic and liberal values and shut off in advance their possible strengthening and development on the grounds that the democracy established might deliver the wrong result’:
The result delivered might indeed be wrong. If a people votes in politicians intent on stealing their newly won rights and liberties, that is a tragedy for them and possibly for others. But it’s a risk inherent in the democratic process and has to be worn – by genuine democrats.
Cohen mentions the case of Hamas in Gaza as a warning about what the future might hold for Egypt:
Under a different name (Hamas), the Muslim Brotherhood runs the Gaza Strip. Hamas’s charter states unequivocally that it wants to eradicate Israel. It mentions the 1978 Camp David accords, and not with admiration. (‘Egypt was, to a great extent, removed from the circle of the struggle through the treacherous Camp David Agreement.’) No doubt that in an Egyptian election, the call to repudiate the treaty will prove popular – as popular as the peace with Israel has not been.
It is well worth remembering, then, how Hamas was formed. In 1973 the Israeli authorities issued a licence to Shaikh Ahmad Yassin, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, to set up the Islamic Centre in Gaza as a charity to run social, religious and welfare institutions. The aim was to undermine the authority of the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization. ‘The Islamic associations’, the Israeli weekly magazine Koteret Rashit observed in October 1987, ‘have been supported and encouraged by the Israeli military authorities’ who were ‘convinced that the activities [of the Islamists] would weaken both the PLO and leftist organizations in Gaza.’ While most of these activities were funded largely by contributions from the Gulf states, money also came covertly from Israel itself.
The Muslim Brotherhood did not remain the pliant creature that Israel hoped it would be. Radicalised by the Iranian revolution of 1979, and subsequently by the success of Iranian-supported Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamists in Gaza moved from welfare to political opposition and eventually to terror.
In October 1987 the first intifada broke out in the Occupied Territories. A spontaneous uprising, it took the PLO, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Israelis by surprise. In response the Brotherhood set up Hamas (the name is an acronym of Harakat al-Muqawamat al-Islamiyyah, meaning ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’) as its political wing, to help coordinate resistance to the Israeli occupation. Five years later Hamas in turn set up a military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and pioneered the use of indiscriminate suicide bombings against civilian targets.
Yassin was eventually killed in 2004, hit by missiles fired from Israeli helicopters as he left a mosque in Gaza City. By then, Israel had achieved its aim of undermining the PLO and fragmenting the Palestinian resistance. The people of the area, both Palestinian and Jew, have paid a terrible price for the cynicism of this policy. Not only have the Islamists visited terror upon Israel far bloodier than that ever envisaged by the PLO, but their success encouraged the PLO itself to loosen its secular moorings and to look increasingly to Allah to guide the destiny of Palestinians.
The lesson of Hamas for Egypt is not, as Cohen suggests, that we should be wary of democracy because it may produce the wrong result. It is the very opposite. The real danger lies with the cynicism and bad faith of secular politicians and with the attempts to manipulate reactionary movements and repressive regimes to thwart the popular will.
The outcome of democracy is never certain. That is the whole point. Of course, it is possible that democratic processes can create monsters. What is certain is that attempting to thwart democracy will unleash demons far worse.