Islam and democracy are not mutually exclusive concepts, argues Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian specialist on Islamist ideology and the Muslim Brotherhood.
"What is needed is a broadening of the concept of democracy and respect for other cultures and civilizations outside the narrow Western perspective," said Rashwan, who is the director of the Comparative Politics Unit at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and editor-in-chief of Directory of World Islamic Movements.
Several Egyptian analysts have debated the pace of political reform and the implementation of democracy in Egypt with some arguing that the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, particularly in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, has hobbled the pace of progressive change. Other analysts argued that in fact Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) conveniently use the Brotherhood as an excuse to prevent serious reform and as a way to continue their tenuous grip on power.
Rashwan concurs with the latter theory. "From the beginning of the Mubarak era we had the Emergency Law, which gave the police broad sweeping powers of surveillance and arrest of political opponents. This law was used against all opposition groups and movements, covering the entire political spectrum from left to right, not just the Muslim Brotherhood," Rashwan told the Middle East Times.
"Furthermore, allegations of possible Islamic extremism and political violence from the Brotherhood are totally unfounded. They had nothing to do with the numerous terror attacks against tourists in the 1990s or the more recent attacks in Sharm El Sheikh, Taba and Dahab," he said. "Additionally, the Brotherhood distanced themselves from and denounced these attacks, which were carried out by fringe extremist elements using their distortion of Islam as a pretext."
The reason why the Egyptian government continues to politically persecute the Muslim Brotherhood is for the benefit of their Western allies, most specifically the United States upon whom Egypt is financially dependent to a significant degree, he said.
"The Brotherhood has never been a threat to either Egypt or the Egyptian people," stated Rashwan who has been imprisoned for his political beliefs and describes himself as a leftist with no connection to any Islamic organization.
Rashwan argued that the primary interests of the West and particularly US President George W. Bush and his fellow neoconservatives were to safeguard their interests in the region. Democracy has never been their focus but the alleged pursuance thereof merely a tool to protect their own strategic goals. Only very occasionally and sporadically has Bush even paid any attention to democracy in the area, he claimed, and that was under pressure from the US media and some democrats who questioned Egypt"s human rights record and Bush"s support for Middle East dictators.
The West is particularly worried about the destabilization of the Egyptian government and the loss of a strong ally should the Muslim Brotherhood be voted in. The possible spillover of destabilizing factors to neighboring countries and the possible toppling of other friendly regimes there which are conducive to America and Europe"s interests is another concern.
The future of the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord into which the United States invested so much time, money, and energy, could also be at stake, he explained. "Secondly keeping the seafaring routes free for trade and the movement of the US navy"s "armada" in the event of regional threats, is another big motivating factor."
But the Brotherhood has not been weakened by the political crackdown against it. On the contrary has come out somewhat strengthened. The organization continues to be very active politically despite arrests and arbitrary detentions. Last week 31 members were vindicated when the supreme court ordered their release and ruled that their trial by a Mubarak-appointed military court was unconstitutional. This was one of the rare occasions when the court has sided with the Islamic movement"s members.
The much touted argument that the establishment of an Islamic government would lead to an erosion of democracy is hotly disputed by Rashwan who explains that many of the autocratic regimes in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, who claim to be Islamic, are bankrolled and supported by the West while their main interests revolve around securing their grips on power and ignoring the needs and political wishes of their populaces, he said, adding that the Iranian government, however, was an example of extreme application of Sharia or Islamic law, something that wouldn"t happen in a moderate country like Egypt.
The leadership of the Brotherhood and the various syndicates which they lead are democratically elected. They hold regular debates with the media in which they address the concerns of critics and have stated categorically that they would be a democratic government if voted in to power, said Rashwan.
"But if you mean would our democracy and civil society be a replica of the West, then the answer is "no." There are other civilizations and cultures besides the West," he said.
Neither are all democracies in the West streamlined and identical. There are democracies in conservative Catholic countries such as Venezuela and Ireland where legislation is heavily influenced by the conservative Christian church where certain personal liberties are affected such as abortion, Rashwan said.
He said that Turkey - a Muslim country with a secular constitution - is an example of a country in which competing Islamic and secular ideologies have managed to reach a democratic compromise and co-existence, albeit rather shakily and with a history of political coups. A recent threat by the Turkish military to preempt the appointment of an Islamic president was neutralized by the vocal power of the Turkish population with the help of the Europeans.
"No democracy is perfect and there is no absolute formula for each and every democracy without taking cultural considerations into account," Rashwan said, adding, "There is genuine desire for democracy in Egypt and Egyptians are politically moderate by nature, so there is little danger of Islamic fanaticism taking hold. But this democracy will not come at the expense of our culture and traditions and that is something the West has to accept."