Who is worse, President Mohamed Morsi, the elected Islamist seeking to apply Islamic law in Egypt, or President Husni Mubarak, the former dictator ousted for trying to start a dynasty? More broadly will a liberal, democratic order more likely emerge under Islamist ideologues who prevail through the ballot box or from greedy dictators with no particular agenda beyond their own survival and power?
Morsi's recent actions provide an answer, establishing that Islamists are yet worse than dictators.
This issue came up in an interesting debate for Intelligence Squared U.S. in early October when Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress argued "Better elected Islamists than dictators," while Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and I argued the counter-argument. Well, no one really argued "for" anyone. The other team did not endorse Islamists, we certainly did not celebrate dictators. The issue, rather, was which sort of ruler is the lesser of two evils, and can be cudgeled to democracy.
Katulis blamed dictatorships for fostering "the sorts of ideologies" that led to 9/11 and Gerecht insisted that military juntas, not Islamists, generally are "the real danger. … The only way you're going to get a more liberal order in the Middle East is through people of faith" who vote Islamists into office. Katulis argued that elected Islamists change and morph, becoming less ideological and more practical; they evolve in response to the rough and tumble of politics to focus on "basic needs" such as security and jobs.
In Iraq, Gerecht professed to find that "a tidal wave of people who were once hard core Islamists who … have become pretty profound democrats, if not liberals." As for Egypt, he noted approvingly but inaccurately that "The Muslim Brotherhood is having serious internal debates because they haven't figured out how to handle [their success]. That's what we want. We want them to fight it out."