Democracy demonstrators in Egypt had not yet overthrown the Mubarak dictatorship when American pundits were issuing dire warnings. “One Man, One Vote, One Time” became their mantra, indicating that extremist Islamic forces would come to power in Egypt and never allow a second round of elections. (Not surprisingly, the slogan assumes voters are men.)
Israeli leaders and unrepentant neoconservatives in the US were particularly vociferous. The catch phrase plays on legitimate fears that a popular uprising can be hijacked by anti-democratic forces. These folks argue that Egypt could end up with a religious-based dictatorship worse than Mubarak.
There’s only one problem with the catch phrase. It’s never happened!
Extremists using the name of Islam have created brutal regimes in today’s Iran and during Taliban rule in Afghanistan. But they came to power as a result of violent upheaval – not popular elections. When self-proclaimed Islamic parties have actually won fair elections, they also play by the parliamentary rules, even when they lose. Let’s look at the record:
Conservative Islamic parties in Malaysia won control of a provincial government and seats in the national parliament. They have not seized power and continue to abide by parliamentary norms.
Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of a major Islamic party, was elected president of Indonesia in 1999 and left office in 2001.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, with roots in conservative Islam, governs today abiding by parliamentary rules. No one doubts that if it loses fair elections, it will step down peacefully.
Hezbollah consistently wins seats in Lebanon’s parliament and participates in coalition governments. At times it has been part of the majority and at times part of the minority. Hezbollah acknowledges that multi-religious Lebanon will never become an Islamic state. At times Hezbollah has used its armed militia to pressure the government, but so have pro-US parties who also maintain their own, less organized armed groups. US and Israeli leaders object to Hezbollah not for its internal role in Lebanese politics but because Hezbollah is a military obstacle to future Israeli invasions of Lebanon.
Hamas won free and fair Palestinian Authority elections in 2006. U.S. and Israeli leaders vilified the elections and fanned up divisions among Palestinians. Ultimately armed battles broke out between Hamas and Fateh (the main party within the PLO). It was the US and Israel that allowed only “one election, one time” in Gaza. They have no intention of allowing any more free elections until their designated parties can win.
Iran is more complicated. In 1979 a broad-based, popular revolution overthrew the US-backed Shah (king). Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini played a prominent role in the revolution and his forces ultimately imposed a right-wing, repressive regime, using Islam as the justification. Iran’s elections were never genuinely democratic because the religious leaders held real power. Khomeini came to power through violent upheaval, not elections.
And that’s why Egypt will not become “another Iran.” The Moslem Brotherhood has a popular base but did not try to seize the political initiative during the popular uprising. In fact, it didn’t support the popular demonstrations for the first few days.
The Brotherhood has no armed militia and has participated in parliamentary elections for decades. While there may be factions within the Brotherhood who advocate an un-democratic, Islamic state governed by an extremist version of Sharia law, those forces received no popular support during the uprising.
The Brotherhood leadership seems committed to participating in fair elections and, if it does not win a majority, working in coalition with other parties. If it attempts to seize power, the same people who occupied Tahrir Square will be out in the streets once again.
The U.S. intentionally exaggerates the threat of extremist Islam, much as it distorted the threat of communism during the Cold War. In fact, the argument that “totalitarian communist parties” might win one election and never allow them again began during the Cold War.
Historically, US leaders have cared little about elections in the Arab world and far more about US corporate and military interests. Oil, military bases and support for Israel are far more important than democratic institutions.
In reality the US demands neither one person, one vote nor one election.
No one knows exactly what the future holds for Egypt. As of this writing, a junta of Mubarak military leaders rule Egypt, having dissolved the parliament and abolished the undemocratic constitution. The US is working overtime to find some new, pro-US military leader to rule the country under the guise of making a “transition” to democracy.
The US fears an Egypt with genuinely free press, freedom to organize unions and civic organizations, and freedom to form independent political parties. Many of those institutions will sharply oppose US Middle East policy and pressure Israel to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
The weeks ahead will determine the progress towards real democracy in Egypt. The main danger comes not from radical Islamists intent on imposing a new dictatorship but from pro-US generals who want to maintain the old one.
Reese Erlich is a veteran foreign correspondent and author of the new book, “Conversations with Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence and Empire.” See www.reeseerlich.com