Washington must learn to live with the Islamists
Published in Gulf News, 16 May 2012
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News
When one mentions the Middle East in the United States, the conversation is most likely to focus on either Syria or Iran. Taking the long view, however, Washington's most compelling Middle Eastern challenge is not whether to intervene in Syria or how to respond to Iran's nuclear programme. It is the question of how to deal with an Islamist-dominated government in Egypt, the Arab world's largest country.
If Washington has not thought about this very carefully it has no one but itself to blame.
From the moment nearly a decade ago when President George W. Bush declared that democracy promotion would become a centrepiece of America's Middle East policy, knowledgeable observers have been pointing out that a more democratic region would be a much more complex place to deal with.
The Bush administration seemed to realise this belatedly when it scaled back its democracy rhetoric after Egypt cracked down on dissent following its 2005 presidential election and in the wake of Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections that took place a few months later, in early 2006.
Upon taking office in January 2009 President Barack Obama travelled to Cairo to issue a dramatic call for democracy and tolerance. His administration also worked to preserve funding for low-level democracy-building efforts throughout the region. The high-minded rhetoric, however, mostly vanished.
When the Arab Spring confronted the White House and State Department with the need to choose between embracing change and loyalty to the region's old guard the Obama administration chose change, albeit in the slowest and most cautious manner possible.
But the uprisings themselves ought not to have been a surprise. Clear-eyed observers both inside and outside the region had been warning for some time that decades of political atrophy did not bode well for the long-term survival of many Arab regimes. For almost as long it has been equally obvious that religiously-based political groups represented the best-organised opposition forces in many parts of the region. Indeed, fear of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover was one of the main things Hosni Mubarak always cited when asked why the West ought to support his autocratic regime.
Over the last decade, claims like these (and Mubarak was far from alone in making them) smoothly fed into the semi-hysterical view of Islam that achieved mainstream credibility in the US after September 11.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Middle East knows full-well that the Muslim Brotherhood, whatever its faults, is a far cry from Al Qaida. Yet one need not look too hard to find American and other western commentators who claim a false equivalence between the two groups.
To be fair, this is a two-way street. More than a few of the Middle East's emerging political leaders appear to have an almost cartoonish view of America. Conspiracy-mongering nationalism, of the type on display during Egypt's legal harassment of American democracy-building NGOs, has done little to improve the new Egypt's image in recent months.
But the fact remains that when Washington's conspiracy-mongers start going on about the threat an Islamist-dominated Egypt supposedly poses to America what is on display is mainly nostalgia. Dealing with Cairo was a lot simpler under Mubarak. That, however, is no excuse for refusing to face up to the world as it is (or, perhaps more accurately, as it is becoming).
If the will is there, an initial lack of familiarity need not become a permanent gulf of misunderstanding. Despite the attacks on democracy-building NGOs that have marked the last few months, Washington must continue to offer training to any democratically-focused political party that wants training in the nuts-and-bolts of civil society and grassroots politics.
Conferences that bring members of the US Congress, the Egyptian and other Arab parliaments together need to be encouraged along with any other sort of educational or cultural exchange calculated to build relationships, educate opinion leaders on both sides, and break down barriers. If ever there was a critical test for America's oft-criticised public diplomacy abilities, this is it.
Instead of indulging in alarmist stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, it is time for American politicians to find Muslim political leaders — Islamists included — who they can work with. The relationship may never be entirely smooth, but demagogues on both sides who say that Islam and the West cannot be reconciled are backing ideology over common sense and pragmatism. In the long run, that is always a losing bet.
The road forward in Egypt has been rocky, and promises to remain so. The military is reluctant to surrender real control (and appears completely unwilling to submit to civilian authority), the parliament is filled with novice legislators and the ultimate shape of the country's constitution remains a mystery.
Washington can play a positive role in this transition, but only if it learns to live with Egypt as it is, rather than pining for Egypt as it was.
Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.