Envisioning Egypt’s future

Egypt’s revolutionary turmoil has produced any number of fairly confident predictions about its future as a pluralist democracy. John McCain expressed it this way: “I have confidence in the Egyptian people that they are not going to elect an extremist. They are not going to allow an extremist group to hijack their country.” Commentators as diverse as Bush adviser Elliot Abrams and journalist Fareed Zakaria express similar expectations of a benign future for Egyptian democracy.

I certainly hope they prove accurate — and they may well. Unfortunately, though, little evidence supports their predictions.

Polls tell us that an Egypt truly representative of its citizens will be (1) resolutely anti-American, (2) nominally democratic and (3) intensely theocratic. That leaves plenty of political space for the highly regarded, well-organized and radical Muslim Brotherhood to operate successfully.

While they do not owe the U.S. any particular loyalty, Egyptians do express considerable hostility. A 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey found 82 percent harboring unfavorable views of the U.S., the highest rating in any of the 22 countries surveyed. Pew uncovered antipathy not just for the U.S. government, but for our citizens as well. Fifty-nine percent of Egyptians evaluate the American people unfavorably.

Nonetheless, Egyptians express support for democracy and key freedoms. Nearly six in 10 Egyptians believe democracy is the best form of government. (While that puts a clear majority in the democratic camp, there is less generalized support for democracy in Egypt than in democratic Turkey — 76 percent — or in Jordan’s monarchy — 69 percent.) A World Public Opinion (WPO) poll found 75 percent of Egyptians saying it was “very important” for them to live in a democratically governed country. Gallup found 94 percent of Egyptians committed to free speech, while 88 percent told Pew they valued an impartial judiciary and 75 percent valued a free press.

Yet this inventory paints a distorted picture, at least from a Western perspective. According to WPO, only 39 percent believe Egyptian democracy should be “based on universal principles of democracy that apply in all countries.” A 60 percent majority prefer that the country be governed by a “form of democracy that is unique for Islamic countries.”

One “unique” feature of Islamic democracy in the Egyptian public mind may be a commitment to theocracy. Two-thirds of Egyptians told Gallup they wanted Islamic law to be the only source of law, compared to 13 percent in blatantly theocratic Iran. Hence the strong support for strict Islamic standards and punishments among Egyptians. Pew found 54 percent supporting segregation of men and women in the workplace, 82 percent favoring stoning for adulterers and 84 percent backing the death penalty for Islamic apostates.

Perhaps most indicative of Egyptians’ theocratic commitment is the fact that 75 percent favor investing a body of “senior religious scholars” with “the power to overturn laws when it believes they are contrary to the Quran,” according to the WPO poll. Only 23 percent took the traditional democratic position that “if laws are passed by democratically elected officials, and consistent with the constitution, they should not be subject to veto by religious scholars.”

Egypt’s climate of opinion provides ample room for the extremist Muslim Brotherhood to maneuver. After all, 69 percent see the Brotherhood as supportive of “democracy,” at least in the theocratic way the Brotherhood and most Egyptians define it.

That’s one reason 64 percent of Egyptians held a positive view of the Muslim Brotherhood in the WPO poll. Pew tells us that, by  52-44, Egyptians have a favorable rather than unfavorable view of the terrorist organization Hamas, officially the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which rules Gaza as a violent thug theocracy.

While dictatorship everywhere and always violates the rights of its victims, hopes for a positive, or even benign, outcome from Egypt’s revolution may prove to be no more than that.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.