It appears the U.S. government may finally be getting smarter after decades of failure to develop a coherent approach to the phenomenon of political Islam in the Middle East. Speaking in Budapest, Hungary, on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States was seeking “limited contacts” with members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood ahead of elections later this year, as well as with Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda.
“We believe, given the changing political landscape in Egypt, that it is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful, and committed to non-violence, that intend to compete for the parliament and the presidency," Secretary Clinton told reporters.
The negative reaction from Washington conservatives was as immediate as it was expected. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Robert Satloff, who advocates “democracy for all but the Islamists,” declared the Brotherhood “a political force whose success would clearly be inimical to U.S. interests.”
It’s quite true that Islamist parties base much of their appeal on hostility to the United States. But it’s worth considering that decades of refusing to recognize them have not weakened Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia and have instead left them as the best-organized political organizations in their respective countries. Indeed, refusing to recognize these parties may in fact have enabled them to capitalize on the perception of U.S. hostility and assisted them in presenting themselves as the legitimate resistance to Western-backed authoritarianism.
Increasing engagement with Islamist political actors is clearly the right move for the administration. It recognizes a simple fact of political life in the Middle East—that Islamic political parties speak for a genuine constituency—and it fulfills a promise President Barack Obama made in his historic Cairo speech in June 2009.
“America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them,” the president told those assembled at Cairo University. “And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments—provided they govern with respect for all their people.”
But, President Obama continued, “government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.”
Secretary Clinton reiterated these conditions on Thursday, stressing that in any contacts with Islamist parties, the United States would “continue to emphasize the importance of and support for democratic principles and especially a commitment to non-violence, respect for minority rights, and the full inclusion of women in any democracy.”
Secretary Clinton’s comments recognize that Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood espouse a number of beliefs—especially relating to women, religious minorities, and Israel—that many Americans and many Egyptians find offensive and retrograde. But the experience of Iraq is perhaps instructive for those who fear that Islamists will revert to their most extreme positions once elected.
Iraq is the first Arab country where Islamist parties have been elected and governed on a large scale, though this was clearly not the Bush administration’s intent. Once in office, however, rather than attempting to establish strict religious law, Islamist leaders began behaving like politicians, squabbling over power and resources both on behalf of themselves and on behalf of the constituencies to which they were now accountable.
Iraq is still bedeviled by enormous problems. And the recent uptick in violence indicates that it probably will be for some time. But its elected Islamist leaders plotting to transform Iraq into an Islamic state at war with the West do not appear to be among those problems.
While the United States must support principles of human rights and dignity as we continue to work with Egypt and Tunisia, we simply should not be in the business of picking winners in the new Middle East. It is folly to imagine that we can. The focus of U.S. policy should be on assisting the process of economic and political reform to provide the foundation for strong, accountable, and transparent institutions—not on selecting the people who should run them.
Any genuine commitment to the development of legitimate, representative governments in the Middle East necessarily involves recognizing that such governments will often include leaders and parties critical of, and sometimes even hostile to, the United States.
But if we’re serious about democracy, there’s really no other option. Secretary Clinton’s comments were a step in that direction.
Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst and Director of Middle East Progress at American Progress.