A week ago, I travelled to Lake Karoun in Fayoum, Egypt, to meet 100 young people selected to take part in the “Lifemakers” training course established by Amr Khaled, a tele-preacher to millions and social entrepreneur. They were the sons and daughters of the upper middle class, volunteering to tackle illiteracy and drug abuse, and spread micro-finance, in Egypt’s poorest parts.
The vast majority said they had been in Tahrir Square in the heady months of January and February. Now they were back at university, school or work, but still passionate about the future of their country. Pious and secular, with headscarves and without, men and women debating and training together, they believe in pluralist Islamic democracy – drawing strength from Islam while respecting personal choice. Yet the meeting was electrified by the fear expressed by a woman in a white headscarf: “The question we are asking is what happens if the majority do not share our vision of the future.”
Little did we know that the next day the stark immediacy of this concern would be tragically exposed an hour and a half away in Cairo. The attacks on members of the Christian Copt minority, and the killing of 25 of them, encapsulate concerns in Egypt and the wider world about the direction of the revolution. In essence, the question is simple: when can Egyptians trust democracy? The answer should be the sooner the better, and the fuller the democracy the better. I say this not out of some naive faith in the kindness of human nature, but rather as a calculated and principled response to the challenges facing the most important Arab state.
Early elections do not appear to be Egypt’s current trajectory. Eight months after the revolution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which runs the country, is hedging its bets. The emergency laws originally introduced by former president Hosni Mubarak have been tightened. The army’s economic privileges are jealously guarded. There is talk of the election of a president being slipped into 2013.
It is easy to see the grounds for caution. The violence against Copts is only the most obvious cause. The broader fear is that the essence of the revolution will be perverted. The experience in Gaza in 2006, when Hamas won elections against a discredited Fatah, is used by some in the west to warn of the perils of democracy.
In Egypt, some 44 per cent of respondents in a poll said the country they most admired was Saudi Arabia. For many Salafists – puritanical Islamism went underground in the Mubarak years – pluralist, democratic Islam is anathema. Earlier this month there were newspaper reports that Salafi leaders had attacked those opposing islamic law as “adulterers, thieves and immoral people”.
Meanwhile, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is not only the most vibrant social welfare organisation in the country, it also has the best electoral machine. The Brothers are savvy enough to appreciate the risk of being tainted with sectarianism. They have a Christian as the vice president of their political party. They have said they will contest only 40 per cent of seats (though their religious allies will have no such constraint). They have an on-again off-again alliance with the liberal Wafd party and will not be running a presidential candidate.
Few take these points at face value.This is fuelling pressure for the west to conform to the stereotype propagated by the hardest of hardline Islamists – that the only democracy we defend is that which produces results we like. But this would be a great mistake.
The recent violence against Copts should intensify the demand for early elections of a civilian government that can be held accountable. The military authorities are at best ill-equipped for sensitive political decisions, and at worst feathering their own nest. But there are further reasons to believe in democracy, not reject it.
First, article two of the Egyptian constitution already specifies that sharia is the fount of all law and Islam is the state religion. This is repeated in the constitutional declaration issued by the ruling military. So railing against Islamist reverence for Islamic law misses the point.
Second, the ballast of society continues to be its business and middle class. Elections are the way to produce a government that people can complain about as their own. The sooner it gets on with economic reform that powers growth and attracts back international investment – and the commitment of the diaspora – the better.
Third, it is vital to understand “Islamism”. It is understandable to be afraid of the strictures of Hamas or the Taliban. It is not reasonable to ignore the other workable models of what Egypt could be. Turkey’s AKP party is the most obvious. There are good grounds to criticise aspects of its rule, for example around media freedom, but I see in Turkey a drive to synthesise Islam and modernity, not to turn the clock back. There is also Indonesia – after all, the world’s largest Muslim country.
Fourth, there is a powerful case summarised by scholars at the University of North Carolina that the record shows not just that Islamist parties lose support as democracy takes root. They also seem to liberalise their platforms as democracy develops as the search for the culturally-conservative, politically-liberal swing voter drives them to the centre.
Finally, the greatest boost to the Islamist vote would be a sense of victimisation by the west. We should never appease views we hold to be objectionable. We should explain our differences. There is ample ammunition to challenge exclusive and sectarian definitions of Islam. But we should not fall into a rejectionist trap.
The Brotherhood is not any old Islamist group. It is where the movement started, in a country that should be the leader of the Arab world. So the stakes are serious. But so are history’s lessons. When you climb the Citadel in Cairo, built by Saladin in the 12th century, you can see the Rifai mosque. There is buried the Shah of Iran. Therein is the best riposte to the claim that dictatorship is the way to contain sectarianism. Dictatorship incubates sectarianism. The sooner it is replaced in Egypt, the better.
The writer is the MP for South Shields, and former British foreign secretary.