Democratic Reform in Muslim Societies: The Case of Egypt

The Bush Administration has made education reform in Muslim societies a key demand, and has earmarked considerable sums of money to fund democratic education. The substantial funds allocated to democratic education in Muslim countries have attracted many organizations involved in democratic training in South American and East Europe. The decision to spend money on democratic education signals a positive change in attitude, and the Bush Administration should be applauded for taking this forward-looking initiative, and for increasing the pressure on the autocratic Middle Eastern regimes to undertake democratic reform.

Democratic reform will not, however, come about by merely pouring cash and making demand from outside. The reform will ultimately emerge as a result of popular demands and reformist steps by internal political players. Outside pressure by democratic nations should compliment, rather than displace, the ongoing internal social and political struggle in place long before the menace of global terrorism hit the United States.

The temptation to champion democracy in the Middle East by micro-managing the reform process is counterproductive, and is likely to play into the hands of anti-democratic forces intent on stemming out the fledgling democratic forces under the rubric of safeguarding national independence and countering foreign interference. Rather than pressuring autocratic government to change school curricula and superimpose a set of abstract criteria through state apparatus, US government should use its influence to increase the margin of freedom for political expression and action by civil society organizations. The forces of reform and modernization are already at work in Muslim society, and have, despite severe limitations imposed by the state on their actions, made considerable strides to effect educational, cultural, and political reforms.

The struggle for democracy in Egypt provides us with a good insight into the dynamics of reform in this key Middle Eastern country, and underscores the need for a new approach by the Untied States and Europe to facilitate the emergence of stable and sustainable democracy. The country is ruled by a political party that wears a liberal democratic garment, but protects the interests of a corrupt oligarchy, and rules with an iron fist. The party tightly controls the press, has continuously supported emergency laws, and enjoys full monopoly over the licensing of new political parties. The party has, for years, marginalized opposition, and refused to legitimize any political group that advocates Islam as the foundation of social and political reform.

For years, the ruling elites of Egypt have refused to recognize the Muslim Brotherhood group as a legitimate political actor by invoking secularism. Excluding an Islamic party that has not clearly defined how it plans to protect the constitutional rights of religious minorities is justifiable, though the state has never set clear standards and qualifications to explain its position. However, using religious adherence of party members and leaders as a ground to exclude parties that promote a non-religious national platform is a clear violation of democratic principles.

In 1996, the committee in charge of licensing political parties, an arm of the Egyptian’s national congress, turned down the application of a new political party, the Wasat Party, co-founded by a Muslim and a Copt. Egyptian security forces arrested the founders, accused them of being a front for the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Notwithstanding that the party leaders were acquitted by a military court, the Egyptian government persists in denying the Wasat Party’s application, and continues to curtail political freedom and prevent the emergence of popular political opposition. The Wasat Party has fairly moderated views, and is open to people regardless of their religion and gender. It has a good number of Christian Copts and women, both in the Party’s leadership and the rank-and-file.

The Wasat Party, and other popular groups, is castigated for insisting on grounding their reformist message in Islamic values and traditions. Yet it is this kind of work, in which the basic cultural and religious assumptions and traditions are challenged from within, and through reference to Islamic values and normative sources, that is essential for advancing the process of democratization, and fostering a spirit of openness and tolerance. Islamic sources emphasize the values of equality, religious freedom, respect of diversity, and fair dealings, essential for any democratic reform. And reform movements must appeal to Islamic values that form the moral sub-terrain of contemporary Muslim cultures.

For over half a century, Western democracies have relied on the power of Middle Eastern states to effect modernization by imposing modern forms on their populations. The result has been scandalous. Political systems that silence opposition, and use an iron fist to transform religiously rooted traditions and introduce modern lifestyle, have created police states that foster corruption and breed extremism and violence. Nothing can stem the tide of extremism, except a political environment that promotes dialogue, freedom of press and association. In a society in which ideas are allowed to compete, extremism will be forced to move from the center stage to the fringe of society, and moderate voices and practices will prevail.