Repression and Democratization in the Case of Egypt’s Islamists

On April 10, 2014, the Brookings Institution hosted a book launch marking the release of Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, a new book by Shadi Hamid, fellow with the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Temptations of Power examines how and why Islamist movements change over time, what animates their worldview, as well as their ultimate objectives for society. Hamid was joined by CBS News Correspondent Margaret Brennan who moderated the discussion. Brenan coincidently interviewed Hamid in Tahrir Square back in 2011 following the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. 

After welcoming remarks by Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director of the Saban Center, Hamid discussed that when trying to understand what motivates groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, one should look beyond the dichotomist arguments and instead delve deeper into who they are, how they behave, and how they evolve over time.

Hamid argued that repression actually compels Islamists to moderate their politics, work in coalitions and de-emphasize Islamic law. But on that same note, when democratic openings have opened up, (Hamid cites Turkey and Egypt as examples), these openings tended to push Islamists toward their original conservatism. Which leads Hamid to question: “What if Arabs or Islamists decide through a democratic process that they don’t want to be liberals? Do they have a right to try an alternative process?”

Hamid also discussed U.S. policy towards Egypt during the Arab Spring. Ironically, both liberals and Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt felt betrayed by the United States; America’s biggest mistake was an unclear policy. Through his interviews and conversations, he concluded that “everyone hated it but nobody knew what it was.” Hamid expressed the need for having a deeper understanding of Islamists in general. “We don’t have to like Islamists, but we have to understand them,” Hamid said.

When asked about the role of Salafis in the Egyptian political arena, Hamid explained how Salafis’ popularity could create a “tea-party effect” on the Brotherhood. Likening the Salafis to the American conservatives whose electoral gains have helped move the Republican Party to the right, Hamid said this group of Islamists has the potential to alter the political platform of the Brotherhood, dragging the center-right further rightward.

Addressing a question from the audience regarding Iran, Shadi discussed how we should not compare and equate the Iranian and Egyptian Islamist experiences. In Iran, Hamid demonstrated that Islamists came to power through revolution, while the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt came to power through a series of elections. Another key difference he noted was the Islamists in Iran who came to power were more aggressive, and sought to eradicate opponents in brutal ways, while mainstream Islamists in Egypt are gradualists, not revolutionaries.

Hamid concluded the talk by discussing how, in the past, governments have attempted to totally eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood, but it doesn’t work; the movement goes underground and reemerges. According to Hamid, “The Muslim Brotherhood is not just an organization. It’s an idea. And you cannot kill an idea.”