Should we want free elections when a totalitarian regime threatens to win through the polls? Can election be used to give the enemies of democracy the keys to an imperfect democracy? This is the recurring Arab-Muslim world dilemma. It has arisen dramatically in Algeria. It has arisen on the eve of every election in Egypt. If it was easy to solve, it would have been long ago. Theoretically, there are two conflicting abstract temptations – angelic democracy and cynical democracy.
The angelic believes he/she can reduce the alpha and omega of democracy to the organisation of free elections without worrying about the result. Never mind if such election brings to power tyrants, fascists … who will not return the keys. This was the danger when the Salvation Islamic Front (FIS) threatened to win elections in Algeria. This is the danger posed by the victory of a movement like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. None must be mislead by their comely face and torture by the Egyptian regime. For them, democracy is but a means… to complete an expansionist totalitarian cultural fundamentalist revolution.
Supporters of the lesser evil will do anything to block them. Even though they have to support cynical governments? Under the pretence of blocking them, Arab regimes gag both Democrats and secular fundamentalists, such as Mohamed El-Baradei, who was barred from running for the presidential election, closing the door on any real alternative, and therefore on democracy.
Where is the way out? There is no quick fix. Only the poison is well known. Attempting democracy without first secularizing, as in Algeria, leads to religious dictatorship or civil war. Secularizing while delaying to democratize, as in Turkey, cannot prevent an Islamist rise, but in a more contained way, its effect seems more democratic. Although none can rule out the risk of the Islamist government of Turkey defeating the secular military and judiciary checks and balances, this process sheds light into why the Islamism of AKP (Justice and Development Party) is Temporarily less dangerous than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
It is also a matter of geopolitical agenda. In the puzzle of nations, Egypt is a historical focus of Sunni fundamentalism. If its triumph had taken place before the collapse of the theocratic regime in Iran, an election victory of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood could have stimulated and encouraged international Islamist excess. Afterwards, it may be limited to the national arena and take the path of Turkish style Islamism, provided that in the meantime Egypt is secularised, which is far from being encouraged.
Outside observers must accept the complexity of this mechanism if they are to contribute in it without playing sorcerer’s apprentice. There is no choice to be made between an authoritarian regime and a totalitarian movement. The former uses the fundamentalist threat to defer democracy; the latter claims to embody the alternative, but only dreams of dictatorship on behalf of Sharia. Smothered between the two, secular democrats are the only ones that deserve our solidarity.
To support them, it is necessary to accept that reference to a value greater democracy – theocracy – be used to disqualify a candidate or fundamentalist party while ensuring full respect for political freedoms outside such restriction, hoping that citizens of the Arab-Muslim world will one day have a choice other than… the plague or cholera.