Liberal hegemony has committed the United States to the spread of democracy in many an unconventional region, utilising military offensives and the intelligence apparatus to alter status quo politics and entrench America’s policing of the globe. In defending its questionable ventures in the Muslim world, the US points to a need for the dissemination and implementation of abstract liberal ideals like democracy and liberty. The experience of the past few decades reflects this attempt, but the truth is that American ventures in the Middle East haven’t led to any form of successful democratic transitions. Rather, they have enfeebled a decades-old American understanding of liberal democracy.
As the illustrious realists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt write in The Case for Offshore Balancing, “Democracy promotion requires large-scale social engineering in foreign societies that Americans understand poorly, which helps explain why Washington’s efforts usually fail.” In other words, proficient local governance has proven to be irreplaceable.
Recent history sees that it is only when the military state itself willingly allows for a democratic transition driven by the people’s will that we are able to witness several examples of internationally recognised free and fair elections in the Muslim-majority world; notably, these were devoid of Western interference. What those elections also have in common is eye-opening: Islamist parties succeeded at the ballot box.
Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and several other notable Islamist electoral successes have awakened the US to what it sees as a dreadful reality: Islamist victories mean Islamist policies that are often at odds with American interests in the region. This has permanently altered the US belief in democratic proselytisation.
Consequently, US foreign policy has made a 180 degree turn. Whereas once it celebrated democracy in all its glory and marketed its benefits to the region, the US now accepts that the endeavour to promote democracy in the Middle East causes a head-on collision with US national security interests. Repressive authoritarian regimes are now Washington’s best allies; they ensure that America’s interests come first.
The Algerian and Egyptian Islamist experiences, a little over two decades apart, serve as eerily similar case studies of the quelling of Islamist democratic parties while confirming that the region still suffers from a stratocratic disease.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood
In Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, Shadi Hamid argues that, “Liberalism cannot hold within it Islamism.” Whether that holds true or not is up for debate, but what is certain is that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood adhered to elements of liberalism in its rise to power: freedom of opposition, as well as free and fair elections.
The Arab Spring of 2011 opened a door at which the Brotherhood had been waiting anxiously, and after decades of autocratic repression in Egypt, the party finally found itself with a chance at not just parliamentary seats, but a presidential administration. In the first free and fair elections in modern Egyptian history, held in June 2012, Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded. Just a few months later, in November of the same year, Morsi granted himself executive control that allowed the bypassing of regular judicial procedures. He sought to put the future of a newly revised constitution directly in the hands of a public vote. Analysts would look back to that move as the decisive foretelling of what was to come in July 2013, when the government was toppled by a military coup d’état.
America’s silence amidst egregious human rights abuses was deafening before, during and after the coup. The then US Secretary of State John Kerry even went as far as to, in a sense, endorse the coup, saying that the army was “in effect… restoring democracy.” US interests welcomed this military intervention, no matter its undemocratic nature and no matter the civilian cost.
Morsi’s understanding of what he believed to be Egyptian political sovereignty at this crossroads in the country’s tumultuous history was flawed, and more importantly from the American perspective, he had become too big a liability. As Hamid puts it, “The model for Morsi was Turkey or Qatar — countries that were tied to the United States militarily and strategically but able and willing to establish themselves as independent, assertive regional powers, despite occasional American grumbling.” Egypt’s geographically strategic and politically vital place in the region was no place for Islamist experimentation.
Separated from Egypt by only the Sinai Peninsula, Israel no longer enjoyed an Egyptian acquiescence that it had for decades under the Mubarak regime. The US was keen on Egypt’s respect of the Camp David peace treaty and cooperation with Israel, but President Morsi had other plans. He travelled to Tehran for a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement just months after the election, reflecting a major foreign policy shift after decades of subservience to Washington.
Some argue that the toppling of the Morsi government was a direct result of popular protest, and that is true to a certain extent. But I argue that it is an impatience with Islamists, driven by what their political opponents describe as a predisposition to eventual absolute power, and a need to eliminate opponents, that brings about an abbreviation of the democratic experience. Today that is more evident than ever, with many who suggested that Morsi’s government had overstepped the mark now silent about Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s totalitarian governance and atrocious human rights record.
Meredith Wheeler and Shadi Hamid scored Morsi’s year in office according to the Polity IV Index, one of the most widely used empirical measures of autocracy and democracy. The study measures three key indicators of democracy: whether a leader is elected or appointed, constraints on the executive body, and the openness of political participation. Their conclusion was that, “Morsi’s year in office was anocratic — that is, it was democratic in some ways and autocratic in others.” They further mention that “unlike the current military-backed government, it (the Morsi administration) did not systematically repress and imprison opponents. Moreover, Morsi’s winner-takes-all majoritarianism was counterbalanced by what Nathan Brown calls the ‘the wide state’, including the military and security establishments, a powerful judiciary, and business elites.” Further details can be found in their study titled Was Mohammed Morsi Really an Autocrat? Nonetheless, a free and fair election led to one year of democratic rule in Egypt.
The Algerian military state
Of course, not all Islamist parties in the region face American disapproval or confrontation. Often times, there is simply the military state’s disapprobation of a party influenced by theology, even if against the choice of the people. Two decades prior to the Egyptian Islamist experiment, that was certainly the experience of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, a party best known by its French acronym, FIS.
In an unprecedented result, the party won a majority of seats contested in local elections in 1990 — Assemblée Populaire Communale (APCs) — and went on to secure most National Assembly seats in the first round of balloting in 1991 — Assemblée Populaire Wilayale (APWs). These elections were recognised internationally to be free and fair, unlike many Algerian elections prior and many after.
However, the military-backed FLN, the only constitutionally legal party until 1989, was alive and well. The second round of the election was cancelled; FIS elected members of parliament and community leaders were killed, arrested or forced to flee the country. An all-out military assault on the FIS and its members ensued in a military coup d’état. Certain factions within the FIS fought back, including a radical group formed post-coup — Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) — making the Algerian experience the bloodiest of the numerous Islamist attempts at democratic leadership across the region. When all was said and done almost ten years later, estimates tallied over 300,000 killed, including my own uncle, an electrical engineer. While there was initially no evidence that the US played a role in the Algerian military coup, the arrest in America of the head of the FIS Parliamentary Delegation, Anwar Haddam, signalled an indirect and discreet US complicity. Stability in the hands of the military regime was Washington’s preference.
This case serves as an example of suppression of Islamist ideology, often against the will of the people. It also serves as an example of this startling reality: state terror often hides behind the guise of official government and the illusion of the attempt to keep the peace; the same pass is not afforded to the democratically-elected Islamist majority, and the military state continues to rule. Today multiple parties exist in Algeria, but the FLN continues its grip on power while the FIS is outlawed.
Ultimately, free and fair elections in North Africa, the Middle East and in the greater Muslim world often result in Islamist party success. However, after electoral success, an Islamist ruling party in a state is not indicative of liberal governance, and many an example throughout the region’s recent complex history are indicative of this reality.
In Egypt, Islamists proved to be too great a threat to American interests. In turn, US foreign policy no longer values free and fair elections in several key states, as such elections put its interests in too great a danger and threaten its allies. The United States no longer deems the results of liberal hegemony to be as fruitful as authoritarian despots willing to act for short-term American interests. While these regimes are indeed serving the interests of the US in the region, this is jeopardising the future of long-term collaboration with these states, pitting America against the will of the oppressed people. These are a people who will certainly overcome tyrants and enjoy political sovereignty in the coming decades.
Whether by American interference or simply the military state’s disapproval of theological ideology, Islamist parties and movements often find themselves attempting to adopt and practice the democratic process, to little or no avail. In the Muslim world, truly free elections mean Islamist victories. Whether or not the results stand, however, is the pressing question at hand.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.