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The Islamic Democracy Agenda In Egypt

David Frum is on a different page as Rod Dreher, but reading from the same book:

There is a critique to be made of the Obama administration’s approach to Islamism, especially in Egypt – and it doesn’t require anyone to hurl false charges that the president “sympathizes” with the killers of Americans.

The critique is this:

The Obama administration has staked its foreign policy on the assumption that the best way to deal with radical Islam is by engaging with radical Islam, thus splitting the men of violence from the men willing to try politics.

By this theory, the problem with radical Islam was its method (terrorism), not its goals (establishing Muslim Brotherhood style governments).

Some in the Obama orbit hoped that the entry into government would modulate and moderate Islamist goals. Others believed that even if the Islamists did not moderate, it was still preferable to live with them than to do what was necessary to resist them.

He goes on:

This policy approach is hardly crazy, and indeed may well be the only solution to the Afghanistan problem. But extended indiscriminately, it can lead to some very crazy results . . .

The central test of the engage-political-Islamists policy is post-Mubarak Egypt. Nobody remembers now, but after Mubarak’s fall there was much debate whether the Muslim Brotherhood should be allowed to participate in Egypt’s new political system. It is hardly illiberal to ban a party that aims at the overthrow of a liberal state. West Germany banned neo-Nazi parties after 1945; the post-1989 Czech Republic forbade former communist officials to hold government jobs – and both democracies are stronger for it. In the end, the Muslim Brotherhood escaped the ban by promising not to run a candidate for president, a promise it promptly broke.

Through it all, the Obama administration pressed for engagement, inclusion and acceptance, provided only that the Muslim Brotherhood complied with the rules of the political system. It did – and here we are.

That’s the argument to have.

That is, indeed, an important argument to have. But Frum shouldn’t be quite so disingenuous as to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood was in any way analogous to neo-Nazi parties or former Communist officials. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the Nazis had been in power until 1945, as had the Communists in Czechoslovakia prior to 1989. Barring these people and parties from power was a way of ensuring a transition to democracy. Barring the Muslim Brotherhood would have been a way of ensuring that such a transition didn’t take place. And it would have been understood precisely that way by the Egyptian people.

A proper analogy would have been for the party aligned with the Egyptian military to have been barred from participating in the Egyptian elections. Or, alternatively, for West Germany to have banned the Communist Party in 1945 (they were actually banned in 1956, and re-founded in 1969, but that’s another story), and for the Czechs to have banned far right populists in 1989.

In any event, we do need to have this argument, but we can’t assume cavalierly that repressive tactics work – even in the short term. They do, sometimes, particularly when they have adequate (even if not majority) popular support. I’m skeptical, personally, that the Egyptian military could have banned the Muslim Brotherhood without facing widespread civil opposition, and possibly worse. When Frum says some in the Obama Administration thought it was “preferable to live with [the Islamists] than to do what was necessary to resist them” that “what was necessary” could well have included supporting an outright military coup, and subsequent large-scale repressive violence. Meanwhile, the actual partial coup that took place has left military and civilian authorities jockeying for legitimacy, which is part of the background to provocations like the attack on the American embassy.

I said that surfing the tides we’d inevitably get wet, didn’t I? That still doesn’t mean it’d be wiser to play King Canute.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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