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Current Affairs ( 2 Feb 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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In Egypt, 'Islamist' Fears Overblown

By Lionel Beehner

February 1, 2011

[Lionel Beehner is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.]

The United States has played a role of wait-and-see as protests have raged across Tunisia and Egypt. There is concern that a party inhospitable to American interests namely the Muslim Brotherhood could fill a power vacuum were President Hosni Mubarak to be tossed from office like Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. As a result, some foreign policy observers are urging caution in calling for regime change or immediate elections.

These fears are overblown. The threat posed by Islamists seizing power is more often than not a crutch used by autocrats to safeguard their positions, secure foreign aid and snap up White House invitations. We have seen this in spades since 9/11, when presidents from Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf to Egypt's Mubarak played up the threat of radical Islamists at home to secure more goodies from Washington namely billions of dollars worth of aid and military hardware and retain power. Their relationship vis-à-vis the U.S. can best be summed up: Hey, we may not be perfect, but trust me, the alternative is worse.

Islamic role is essential

But let's face it, for a democratic coalition to come to power in Egypt it has to make political room for religious groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. That isn't a bad thing. Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition candidate for president, has won the Brotherhood's support. And some Muslim Brothers have participated in the recent protests, though their role and influence remain unclear. The political scientist Barrington Moore once famously posited: "No bourgeoisie, no democracy." What we are seeing is the Arab world corollary: No Islamist representation, no democracy.

Indeed, as the country's largest opposition movement, any grassroots reform coalition in Egypt must win the Brotherhood's support. It is more popular than Egypt's liberal opposition. And the bulk of its membership comprises moderates committed to peaceful relations with Egypt's neighbors, including Israel, and non-Muslims. The Atlantic's Robert Kaplan describes the group as a "community self-help organization." Even though its members support sharia law, their primary aim is not to roll back women's rights or install an Islamic caliphate (much less a Taliban-style haven for terrorists), but to reform Egyptian politics by cleaning up corruption and releasing political prisoners.

True, when the group was founded in a smoky coffeehouse in 1920s Cairo, its orientation was hardly pro-democratic. But after being banned in 1954, the movement drifted from the fiery rhetoric of past enlistees such as al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahri or even the anti-American theologian Sayyid Qutb to make room for liberal values. The Brotherhood also suffers from an image problem, given its offshoots with ties to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and its alleged role in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. But Washington cannot wish away their widespread support among Egypt's religious classes, as they have with Hamas in Palestine or Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Nor is it clear they'd install an Iran-style theocracy. Indeed, U.S. policy still feels hamstrung from the memories of Iran in 1979. Post-9/11 paranoia about radical Islam has made too many Americans allergic to the "I" word in political movements an untenable position in the Middle East as the U.S. itself has acknowledged in practice. Let us not forget that America's two most recent nation-building efforts have resulted in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and an Iraqi constitution that defines the country as an Islamic Democratic Republic. Moderate Islam is an essential part of democracy in the Middle East Washington needs to start reading its own memos.

This isn't Iran

Also, Egypt is not post-Shah Iran. There are no colorful or anti-American religious clerics like Ayatollah Khomeini waiting in the wings. Just as the Taliban will be included in whatever future government of Afghanistan finally sticks, so too will the Muslim Brotherhood be part of a future and, yes, democratic Egypt. We cannot avoid free elections because of the threat of Islamist parties.

"This cycle of suspicion and discord must end," President Obama pledged in his June 2009 speech in Cairo. Indeed, just as we tend to oversentimentalize the secular opposition candidates as saints, so too do we demonize parties with a religious bent. "Whether the Brotherhood would in fact try to impose such a (theocratic) regime is unknown," Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote recently. "Unfortunately, the only way to find out would be to let them take over."

Maybe, but if the Brothers were hell-bent on installing an Iranian-style theocracy, they would not have thrown their support behind ElBaradei, a secular technocrat. The question is not whether the Muslim Brotherhood will seek to join ElBaradei's coalition, but whether he will accept them. And he must. The United States, meanwhile, should back elections there, whether now or later this year. If the Brotherhood wins in a landslide, that could be preferable to propping up an unpopular dictator.