And so it begins: an unprecedented test on the world stage of whether Islamist politics can, at long last, join modernity. Can an Islamist head of state renounce jihadist violence in practice (as al-Qaida or its many offshoots, and Hamas and Hezbollah, have been unable to do)? Can he can work with the international community rather than consistently defy it (like the Iranian regime)?
True, the immediate prospect for a positive solution to these questions doesn't look especially promising. Sunday’s announcement that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won Egypt’s presidential runoff marked the first election of an Islamist head of state in Arab history. But Egypt’s quasi-junta, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, has already stripped Morsi’s presidency of most of its powers, with vague promises of restoring them under a new constitution.
And yet, with Morsi garnering an announced 51.7 percent of the runoff vote, there are risks posed by any new Egyptian constitution because the new president has pledged that it will be founded on the Quran, and he intends that it will impose a strict version of Islamic law, or sharia. Morsi also told The Washington Post in an interview last year that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with its salafist or ultra-conservative version of sharia, was a good model for Egypt. But since Egypt is not a monarchy any longer, it was unclear how a new Egyptian government based on the Saudi model could be imposed other than by a Brotherhood or pan-Islamist takeover, along the lines of the Iranian model.
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At the same time, Morsi has expressed a willingness to work with other political parties in governing Egypt; the Muslim Brotherhood has officially renounced violence; and it has spoken of integrating Egypt’s economy with the rest of the world, all hopeful signs. And Morsi , 60, did study in the United States, earning a doctorate in engineering from the University of Southern California. But on a personal level, his U.S. stay only seemed to disgust him morally and radicalize him, as it apparently helped to do to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind who had studied in North Carolina in the 1980s. Morsi has also spoken harshly about Israel, though he has indicated he has no plans to abrogate the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
The most likely outcome in Egypt now is long-term stalemate and a slow muddle-through approach—and, oddly enough, the Obama administration probably favors this. That’s because the checks and balances in Egyptian democracy, such as they are, now exist mainly between the military and the Islamists, with the hopeful secular Democrats largely marginalized for the moment (and actually favoring, over the Brotherhood, the generals they once crowded the streets to oust). No one in the West especially wants either side, military or Muslim, to dominate.
Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, told National Journal on Sunday that the Brotherhood and SCAF have already reached a modus vivendi for the moment. “Morsi would not have been declared a winner without a deal with SCAF,” Gerges said. “The Brotherhood will play politics and will not take on the military. They have been burned before, a fact deeply etched in the imagination, so the Brothers will go to great lengths to wheel and deal to avoid a confrontation.”
Gerges also says that those who fear the Islamist parties will “hijack and Islamize the political systems of the region” are alarmist. In the last three decades, he says, the majority of religious activists have evolved, matured and distanced themselves from maximalist goals, including ideal Islamic states. “As realists, Islamists also know that checks and balances exist and that the military would strike with an iron fist if they act recklessly,” Gerges writes in a new as-yet-unpublished paper. He adds: “The big battles over the future of Egypt are yet to be fought. There is a lot of dust and let’s not be blinded by it.”
Not surprisingly, the Obama administration has been consistently cautious on the election results, gingerly seeking to cultivate the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, but at the same time not coming down too hard on the Egyptian generals. The problem: Washington finds itself unable to endorse either the interim constitution imposed by SCAF, which stripped the presidency of its powers and dissolved the legislature, or any prospective sharia-based one sought by Morsi.
In comments last week, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Obama administration would review the U.S. relationship with Egypt if SCAF failed to restore full powers to the presidency and permit a new parliamentary election. But these official protests have remained strikingly muted: Only days after the Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on June 15 "highlighted the need to move forward expeditiously with Egypt's political transition" in a conversation with Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the SCAF announced its legal coup. Mostly silence from the administration followed, punctuated by a few mild protests from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
What is becoming settled wisdom in U.S. policy-making circles, except among those on the extreme right or aligned with the pro-Israel lobby, is that the U.S. has no choice but to engage with the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that, during the long era of Arab autocracy, proved to be the only alternative means of political expression. Even some of the smarter hardliners, like Reuel Marc Gerecht, are coming to realize that the Arab world may find another route to democracy—through Islamism.
America may simply have to endure an unpleasant Islamist middle stage—and Arabs may have to experience its failure, as the Iranians have—before modernity finally overtakes Iraq and the Arab world. As Columbia University scholar Richard Bulliet has written: "Finding ways of wedding [Islam's traditional] protective role with modern democratic and economic institutions is a challenge that has not yet been met." The best hope, some of these scholars say, is that after a generation or so, the "Islamic" tag in Arab religious parties becomes rather harmless, reminiscent of what happened to Christian democratic parties in Europe.
With Morsi’s election, we finally have a real-world test of this proposition.