Whether we like it or not, the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s major Islamist group – is going to play a significant, perhaps crucial role in a post-Mubarak Egypt. Too often, American policy makers fall under the illusion that they can somehow have Arab democracy without having the largest opposition groups participate. A “democracy” that excludes a group with hundreds of thousands of members is unlikely to be seen as much more legitimate than the autocracy that came before it.
This brings us back to a critical question: do Islamists, in fact, want to rule Egypt? A careful consideration of the evidence suggests that mainstream Islamists display an odd ambivalence – and even aversion – to executive power. Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood very rarely run full electoral slates. In a recent article for the Journal of Democracy, I looked at the five countries where Islamist opposition groups contest elections on a regular basis – Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, and Yemen – and found that the average percentage of seats the major Islamist groups contest is a mere 36 percent.
Because they put a premium on self-preservation, Islamist groups go out of their way to avoid provoking the government or the international community. As Islamists themselves will often say, the world is not yet ready for them (they even have a phrase for this: “the American veto”).
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[The economy is] an issue where [Rouhani] has a greater chance of avoiding real gridlock within the system itself. It’s not nearly as dangerous as taking on issues of political prisoners or trying to open up the political space to those who feel marginalized.