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."
Jasser and I replied to this catalogue of inaccuracies (military juntas led to 9/11?) and wishful thinking (true believers will compromise on their goals? a tidal wave of Iraqi Islamists became liberals?) by stating first that ideologues are "dictators on steroids" who don't moderate upon reaching power but dig themselves in, building foundations to remain indefinitely in office. Second, ideologues neglect the very issues that our opponents stressed - security and jobs – in favor of implementing Islamic laws. Greedy dictators, in contrast, short on ideology and vision, do not have a vision of society and so can be convinced to move toward economic development, personal freedoms, an open political process, and rule of law (for example, South Korea).
Lo and behold, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have followed exactly our script. Since taking power in August, Morsi (1) sidelined the military, then focused on entrenching and expanding their supremacy, most notably by issuing a series of orders on Nov. 22 that arrogated autocratic powers to him and spreading Zionist conspiracy theories about his opponents. He then (2) rammed through an Islamist-oriented constitution on Nov. 30 and called a snap referendum on it Dec. 15. Consumed with these two tasks, he virtually ignored the myriad issues afflicting Egypt, especially the looming economic crisis and the lack of funds to pay for imported food.
Morsi's power grab stimulated anti-Islamist Egyptians to join forces as the "National Salvation Front" and confront Islamists in the most violent street clashes in six decades, forcing him partially to retreat from his Nov.22 orders. Ironically, after deftly sidelining the military in August, Morsi's overreach created circumstances that returned ultimate authority to the generals, who can intervene for or against him. By choosing Islamist sympathizers as top officers and offering the military enhanced privileges in the proposed constitution, he has in all likelihood won their support. Martial law appears likely next.
In just three months, Morsi has shown that he aspires to dictatorial powers greater than Mubarak's and that his rule portends to be an even greater calamity for Egypt than was Mubarak's. He has neatly vindicated Jasser's and my point: better dictators than elected Islamists. As I noted in the debate, Westerners should slam the door hard on ideological dictators like Islamists while pressuring greedy dictators to allow civil society. That offer the only exit from the false choice of two forms of tyranny.