“Considerable research has shown that often Islamists will ‘moderate’ their ideology and behavior the more they directly participate in their political systems,” writes Quinn Mecham, an academic who served on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff from 2009 to 2010. This ‘inclusion-moderation hypothesis’ has enjoyed almost universal support—even President George W. Bush was a proponent. Speaking on Hezbollah’s participation in Lebanese elections in 2005, Bush popularized the idea as the “pothole theory,” saying that: “I like the idea of people running for office. There’s a positive effect….Maybe some will run for office and say, vote for me, I look forward to blowing up America….I don’t think so. I think people who generally run for office say, vote for me, I’m looking forward to fixing your potholes.”

The hypothesis rests on the notion that, in order to obtain meaningful influence over government, fringe groups are compelled to shift to the center of the political spectrum to win votes. The theory assumes these groups’ social and political doctrines are not shared by a plurality of citizens. As a result, these organizations must realign their agenda closer to the average voter in the hopes of achieving political success.

Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East by Shadi Hamid turns this ‘inclusion-moderation hypothesis’ on its head. A fellow at the Brookings Institution, Hamid contends that what helped temper Islamist movements in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia was not democratic reforms and inclusion in the political process, but rather regime sponsored repression.

Hamid’s argument seems a little unsettling in light of the post-July 3 crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. To be sure, Hamid qualifies his argument, writing, “What I am focused on here . . . is low to moderate levels of repression short of outright eradication.” He goes on to condemn the Egyptian government’s brutal crackdown on Islamists after the 2013 coup. In light of these events, Temptations of Power raises provocative questions about the future of Islamist politics and the relationship between rights and democracy.

Giving the People What They Want

In Europe, democratization has helped foster moderation by encouraging groups like the socialists and Christian Democrats—who had limited bases of support—to shift toward the center of the political spectrum in order to broaden their followings.

According to Hamid, Islamists are not in the same position. Quite the contrary, the majority of Egyptians and Jordanians subscribe to a number of political planks commonly associated with conventional Islamist platforms. In a 2012 Pew survey conducted in Egypt, 60 percent of respondents favored laws strictly adhering to the Quran’s teachings. An April 2011 survey found that only 18 percent of Egyptians would “support a woman president.” In a 2011 poll, 80 percent said that adulterers should be stoned, 70 percent favored severing the hands of thieves, and 88 percent endorsed death as the penalty for apostasy. The same percentages in Jordan were 65, 54, and 83, respectively. As former Muslim Brotherhood member and one-time Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh once remarked in an interview with Hamid, “Whether you are a communist, socialist, or whatever, you can’t go against the prevailing culture. There is already a built-in respect for sharia.”

As tensions mounted between Mohammed Morsi and the Egyptian people in 2013, the anti-Islamist National Salvation Front (NSF) accepted an invitation to meet with a number of Salafi clerics. NSF delegates assured their hosts they harbored no ill will toward Islam or Islamists. Tellingly, one NSF leader even went as far as to claim that Egyptians were already essentially Islamists.

In other words, a free and open democracy is unlikely to temper the Brotherhood’s illiberal tendencies. Instead, according to Hamid, the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties might actually have incentives to harden their conservative positions and move even further to the right in an effort to consolidate their most energetic supporters and undermine rival parties.

Moderation from Repression

By contrast, limited repression has historically acted to moderate the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamid cites the example of the Wasat Party. Formed in 1996, the party splintered off from the Muslim Brotherhood near the end of one of the worst periods of repression for Islamists in Egypt. Wasat’s platform was decidedly more moderate than the Brotherhood’s; the party declared that Christians were members of the Ummah and that women had the right to hold any office in government, including the presidency.

The regime of Hosni Mubarak did not match the party’s moderation. Instead, it arrested several of its founding members and tried them in military courts. Again, Hamid insists, the state’s harsh and intolerant response triggered greater moderation. When Wasat reapplied for official status as a political party, listed among the names of the 93 founders were three Christians and nineteen women.

Similar trends have taken place in Jordan. King Hussein picked a losing horse in the first Gulf War—opposing military intervention by non-Arab states, he kept his kingdom neutral during the conflict. His decision provoked the ire of the Gulf Arab states, Israel, and the United States. Realizing he was on the wrong side of history and eager to create economic growth for his country, the king tilted Jordan toward Tel Aviv and Washington after the war’s end.

To guarantee ratification of his pending deals with Israel and the United States, King Hussein enacted the ‘one-vote electoral law,’ which aimed to purge parliament of all but staunch regime loyalists. Previously, every Jordanian was allotted a number of votes corresponding to the number of seats in his or her district. The 1993 law, however, gave Jordanians a single vote, regardless of the number of seats in their district. The new (and current) system favored the regime at the expense of organized groups, like the Brotherhood.

The Jordanian regime also began harassing the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). As in Egypt, the group did not respond to the regime’s authoritarian turn with radicalism. Rather, its members began to publicly fight for democracy and internalize democratic precepts. The structure of the Islamic Action Front began to mirror the three branches of government, and its leadership largely respected internal referendums occasionally held by the party. Nathan Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University, has argued that the IAF “may be the most democratic party in the region in terms of its internal operations.”

Can Democracy Also Moderate Islamists?

While Hamid convincingly demonstrates that some Islamist groups have responded to repression by moderating their positions, his converse argument—that democratic competition encourages these organizations to adopt even more conservative policies—also seems to be supported by Egypt’s political dynamics following the 2011 revolution.

Yet, on this latter point, it is still worth asking if democracy can also have a moderating effect. After all, despite the extensive overlap between the Brotherhood’s social platform and the preferences of Egyptian citizens, Morsi met the same fate as Mubarak less than one year after taking office. If Islamist parties really do have such a large, natural base of support, why were ordinary Egyptians so keen to topple the man who supposedly stood for what they believed? It was not just Morsi or the Brotherhood that ordinary citizens opposed—a sizeable portion of the country turned against Islamist movements of all stripes.

Part of the answer certainly lies in geography. Egypt’s two largest cities—Cairo and Alexandria—are the strongholds of the country’s liberal and secular currents. They also occupy the center of political life in the country. Demonstrating significant anti-Islamist sentiment was, therefore relatively easier, and perhaps overstated.

Another answer to this question might be found in the numerous polls on which Hamid’s thesis relies. Although there is little doubt that a majority of Egyptians support using sharia as a source for legislation, accurate polling has been notoriously difficult in Egypt. For instance in a December 2010 report, the Population Council, a New York City-based NGO that conducts research in over fifty countries, found that “civic engagement of young people in Egypt is very weak…Few discuss politics with friends,” and that this group “do[es] not invest time to learn more about the social and political issues from the available media.” Less than two months later, Egyptian youth rose up against the Mubarak regime and proved the study’s conclusions to be highly misleading.

It may also be the case that Egyptians are willing to register support for an Islamist agenda to pollsters, but are ultimately unwilling to vote for these policies. For instance, Hamid himself argues that the Brotherhood’s support base was disillusioned by the way Morsi and the Brotherhood conducted business, particularly, “the group’s secretive decision-making process, its tendency to put organizational self-interest above nearly everything else, and the authoritarian tendencies of President Morsi.”

Economics certainly figured into the calculus as well. During Morsi’s administration, many Egyptians were already exhausted with the disruption and ensuing instability caused by the revolution. Many yearned for economic security. Power outages were all too frequent. Cairenes were spending hours waiting to fill up their gas tanks in the early weeks of summer 2013. Economic growth had slowed, and frustrations with unemployment and lack of opportunity persisted. Morsi’s administration was blamed for failing to address these issues.

As discontent with Morsi grew stronger, many analysts began to predict that the Brotherhood would experience a significant drop in support during upcoming parliamentary elections. If the army had avoided wading chest-deep into Egyptian politics and allowed the democratic process to play out, would the Brotherhood have moderated naturally, as posited by the inclusion-moderation hypothesis?

Given the backlash against the Brotherhood’s authoritarian political behavior and inadequate economic policies, it is not be impossible to imagine that unfavorable political developments would have moderated the organization’s doctrines and political platform. Or, at the very least, the Brotherhood might have adjusted its emphasis to focus more on Egypt’s many potholes. In any case, with a few more years of open and fair political competition, liberal and secular groups could have built party structures and developed organized bases of support to compete more effectively against the Brotherhood, particularly if economic issues continued to be the most salient for Egyptian voters. Their growth could have conceivably pushed the Brotherhood toward moderation as well, by providing a countervailing force to the conservative Salafis and pulling the Brotherhood away from the “right.”

While it is undoubtedly true that the Brotherhood’s illiberalism on social issues is a central part of its political identity, its approach to such issues has changed with shifting circumstances. At times, calculated repression by the regime helped to temper the group’s less than liberal positions. During Egypt’s transition, democratic politics seemed to encourage the movement’s most conservative tendencies. Nevertheless, the possibility that democratic politics would have eventually encouraged moderation in the Egyptian case should not be dismissed, either.

A Roadblock to Democracy?

Still, Hamid is likely correct that the illiberal views of most Egyptians would limit the extent to which the Brotherhood would ever moderate their positions in a democratic system. At the same time, social views are not set in stone. A quick glance at Americans’ views of adultery and homosexuality over the past four decades shows how true this reality is.

In much of the Middle East, the past four decades have also witnessed dramatic changes in social beliefs. The consensus narrative—which Hamid supports—attributes this conservative turn away from Arab nationalism and toward Islamism to the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. In the years since, there were plenty of signs that times had changed. In contrast to his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat styled himself as the ‘believer president’ and bore the zabiba, a prayer mark on his forehead. In Amman, Jordan, Hamid writes, “there was one mosque for every 13,181 residents in 1973; by 1984, there was one for every 6,908 residents.”

Today, in what seems like the continuing legacy of 1967, a majority of Egyptians and Jordanians seem to endorse practices typically considered incompatible with core tenets of liberal democracy. By wide margins, they prefer Saudi Arabia’s “model of religion in government” over Turkey’s. Certainly, these preferences are not timeless and unchanging. And in a democratic environment, they may not even dominate voters’ decision-making processes. But they would still affect the character of policies implemented by democratic governments, and many years, if not decades, will have to pass before their popularity wanes.

A core part of Hamid’s argument rests on the distinction between liberal and illiberal democracies. Venezuela and Russia, he stresses, can be classified as democracies, but have done little to cultivate the kind of free society that most human beings desire to live in. On the other hand, “undemocratic” countries like Morocco, Malaysia, and Singapore offer their citizens an environment far more conducive to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. In Hamid’s formulation, liberal democracy should serve as a means to enshrine basic rights and build a society that offers all of its citizens opportunities to flourish.

In some ways, Hamid seems to echo a refrain repeated often by secularists in Egypt following the ascendency of the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. “Democracy isn’t only about casting votes,” as Tahani el-Gebali, vice president of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court phrased it. Temptations of Power itself contributes to these very “raw, existential battles…[over] how society is ordered, and how people liver their lives” that are still unfolding in Egypt and throughout the region. It is a debate over what ‘democracy’ actually entails.

The connection between liberalism and democracy is an intriguing one. Was the United States any less of a democracy before the Nineteenth Amendment? Before the civil rights legislation of the 1960s? Before the piecemeal legalization of gay marriage? To what extent do governments backed by democratic majorities have a right to implement policies that restrict the rights of individuals? The answer, perhaps, depends on whom you ask—Hamid himself remains somewhat ambiguous.

But when it comes to liberal democracy in particular, will Egypt be ready for it anytime soon? Hamid does not explicitly pose that question or offer a direct answer. But it will be harder to respond affirmatively after reading his book.

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