Katherine Lanpher (KL): We know the Arab awakening was fueled by a constellation of factors. What does it really say that in its wake we're looking at a wave of political parties with religion at their core?
Shadi Hamid (SH): It's not a surprise at all. Arabs are generally quite religious. They want to see Islam playing a larger role in their societies. All the polling we have makes that very clear. I think some Western analysts were projecting a little bit and hoping that this would be some kind of secular revolution. That's understandable. The most visible faces in the Egyptian revolution were young, tech-savvy liberals. I think we have to accept that more democracy means religion is going to play a larger role in public life. I think there was a desire on the part of Western analysts to say that Egyptians are going to become fluffy, secular liberals once they have freedom. I think that's just simply not true.
Robert Satloff (RS): I take a somewhat different view. First of all, I think it is a mistake to say that these are parties with Islam at their core. These are parties with Islamism at their core. The distinction is how one translates belief into political action. It is absolutely true that we underestimated the extent to which the Egyptian voters supported parties that advocated a certain view of Islam in public life. I think most analysts got the Muslim Brotherhood share of the vote right. We totally missed the idea that an even more extreme form of Islamism, called Salafism, could grab the attention of a quarter of the Egyptian electorate which is more than all the non-Islamists got put together.
KL: Robert Satloff is making a distinction between what exactly we mean when we talk about an Islamist political party. Shadi, how do you look at it?
SH: I don't think the distinction is that clear. There isn't really this concept of separation of religion from politics and Islam as it exists in Christianity. Most Muslims, religious or not, would agree that Islam has a role to play in public life. If you talk to the average Egyptian and say, “Can't you separate this and keep religion private?” That's not going to go very far. Even the word ‘secular’ is a bad word in a place like Egypt. Even secularists don't call themselves that precisely because they understand this. I'm not sure if the distinction really helps us understand the Arab world any better.
KL: With parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the United States in the past has been reluctant to be seen with some of its members. What choices are in front of the United States right now?
RS: It's absolutely true that the United States hasn't had much direct relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood for many decades because of the views that the Muslim Brotherhood has held and because regimes in this part of the world view the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat and urged us not to have a relationship.
The Muslim Brotherhood looks like they're on the verge of forming a government in a central country like Egypt. Of course we'll have a relationship with them. I think what's essential is that our relationship be based on our interests, not just because the Muslim Brotherhood won the election and therefore they get a free pass. For example, the most important interests that we have vis-à-vis Egypt are Egypt's role in regional security, counterterrorism, and peace with Israel. Then domestically to the extent to which the government of Egypt supports a pluralistic society in which all elements of society – Christians and Muslims etc. – have full and equal rights. If that is not the baseline of our relationship, then we shouldn't have the same sort of special relationship that we had under the Mubarak regime.
SH: We made a very big mistake by not engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood years ago and that's what many of us were calling for as early as 2005-2006. Unfortunately the U.S. was very slow to the game here. Now we're in a position where there's a new Egypt and we don't have a good relationship with the most powerful actor in the country. That puts America in a very weak position. This was a major oversight and a major mistake.
As for this special relationship we had with Egypt, Mubarak was one of the most repressive autocrats. He was around for awhile suppressing his own people yet we still had a special relationship with him then. I think it's a little bit odd to hear that if the Brotherhood does certain things that we don't like, the special relationship will fall apart. I think this is reflective of a little bit of a double standard. We supported an autocratic regime. Now we have to try to undo that and get it right and really atone for that.
RS: I disagree with Shadi on this. I think we have nothing to apologize for by not having a relationship with a political movement that was so virulently anti-American for decades. They opposed our fundamental beliefs, opposed our fundamental interests, and opposed the concept of peace in the Middle East. Our best efforts should have been – which we didn't do enough – was to advance the political prospects of individuals and parties that actually do support our values and interests.
KL: There's been fear that any gains that women, religious minorities and liberals have – this goes not only for Egypt but in other countries as well – are going to be taken back. How do you address that?
SH: They are right. The Muslim Brotherhood doesn't believe in women's equality the way we as Americans do. The Brotherhood is not liberal and that's where Robert and I are in agreement. The Brotherhood is really socially conservative and they're going to take a lot of positions that we as Americans aren't comfortable with. But I don't feel comfortable as an American telling an Egyptian, “You have to be liberal because that's the best thing in the world.” No, my fundamental principle is democracy. People have the right to vote for their own representatives and then they have to take responsibility for their choice.
We should do what we can to encourage the Brotherhood to take better positions on women's issues and on the rights of the Christian minority. Certainly that's something we should care about, but these are conservative societies. I don't know if we should go in and try to support those who are more liberal over those who are less liberal. I'm not sure if that's our role to play.
RS: Ultimately, the issue with Egypt very specifically is that this is a country that receives well over a billion dollars in American assistance. It is not a ‘normal’ relationship that we have. It is a very special relationship. The question in front of Americans is what benchmarks must the Egyptians meet in order to continue to merit this sort of assistance. The two foreign ones have to do with counterterrorism and peace with Israel. The domestic one has to do with pluralism. If we can't sustain that, then it's very difficult to argue to the American people that more than a billion dollars worth of assistance is merited to this new government of Egypt.
KL: We keep focusing on Egypt but there are other countries. Let's talk about the Salafis and other political parties in Tunisia for instance.
SH: Tunisia is quite fascinating because there is now an Islamist prime minister, unlike in Egypt where Islamists don't rule quite yet. In Tunisia they are in a position of governing and implementing their program. Tunisia has in some ways become a model for others to watch because their transition has gone by much more smoothly. You don't see the level of ideological polarization that you see in Egypt where no one seems to get along. Tunisia has a coalition government between liberals, leftists and Islamists. They're effectively sharing power. The Islamist party that's governing there is considered to be one of the more moderate Islamist parties in the region – much closer to the Turkish model of Prime Minister Erdogan. They have become more moderate on things like women's rights, pluralism and they are saying all the right things. Now of course they're going to have to show that in practice as a governing party.
RS: Tunisia does have the potential to be much more of a success in my view than Egypt. The political culture is different. The role of the army in Tunisia is very different. Tunisia is not the militarized state that Egypt has been for the last 60 years. The army came in, got rid of the dictator, and then went back to the barracks right away. It's a great model. In Egypt it's very different.
Even so, I think we should be quite concerned that the Islamists in Tunisia still don't have all the right answers. While there is a coalition government with secularists and liberals working with the Islamists, I think we should be quite wary of foreign policy and domestic issues, especially the role of women and the rollback on huge advances for women in Tunisia.
KL: So much attention has been focused on the Arab awakening but there has been turnover and change in this region before. The revolution in Iran at the very least. Let's talk about what history is useful here. What could the leaders of these countries look to that would be useful as they face choices ahead?
SH: I don't think the Iranian revolution has much relevance. We'd probably do better not to try to draw too many comparisons. First of all, the Iranian revolution led to Shia Islamists coming to power. The Shia tradition is very different when it comes to the understanding of governance. In my meetings with leaders of Islamist parties since 2005, never once have I heard one of them mention Iran as a model. Not one. I think the more relevant comparison is historically in Latin America and Eastern Europe where you've seen democratic transitions that lead to elections. In Iran, Islamists there did not come to power through free and fair elections. But in Egypt and Tunisia, you see free elections. People are making their own choices and that has to be the organizing principle. All of us should encourage and accept that people vote for who they want.
RS: The great lesson of the Iranian revolution is that what started out as a great coalition of democratic change within a year turned into a tyranny of the most radical elements in that coalition, namely Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamist alternative. Slowly but surely, Khomeini eradicated everybody. So far we haven't seen that pattern elsewhere. I do think that change opens up opportunities for the most radical to assert their authority over the entire populace. We have to be very much on the vanguard of watching out for this.