Mubarak's Exit and America's Choice

First Ben Ali, then Mubarak: With the collapse of two veteran Arab dictators, America faces an unnerving foreign policy scenario. What will happen if these countries elect "Islamist" governments to power? How should America react?

Right-wing policy commentators quickly present a doomsday option. In a recent Washington Post column, Richard Cohen declared that because of Islamism, the "dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare." John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN, doubted whether Egypt's street protests were about democracy at all. Andrew McCarthy pointed out that in Egypt, "nothing is secular and Islamist-free, and therefore nothing is truly democratic, not in the Western sense."

Such views have a long pedigree. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1993, Judith Miller cautioned the Clinton Administration that free elections in Muslim countries were "likely to lead to the triumph of Islamic groups that have no commitment to democracy in any recognizable, meaningful form." And Jonah Goldberg of National Review asserted that electoral victories by Islamist movements would amount to "one man, one vote, one time."

For decades, Americans have been peddled a scenario with two scary arguments: Islamist electoral takeover is first of all very likely, and once victorious, Islamist parties would dismantle democracy altogether.

What has happened in reality is quite the opposite.

Across the world's 47 Muslim-majority countries, 154 national elections were held between 1990 and 2006. Out of these, Islamist parties won only 12 elections.

If we only consider only those elections that were free and fair, that is, a reflection of popular will, then only three resulted in a victory by an Islamist party.

The specter that produces right-wing nightmares has been extremely rare.

What about the second part of the argument? Was democracy reversed in the three cases in which Islamist parties won fair and square?

In 1991, Algeria's FIS won the first round of national elections. In panic, France, backed by America, supported a military takeover that plunged the country into an eight-year-long civil war in which 150,000 perished.

In 1995, the Islamist Refah Party (RP) secured enough votes in Turkish elections to head a coalition government. RP maintained cooperation with the US and Israel. But the Turkish military, supported by the West, forced RP out of power, seized its assets, and banned its activities.

In 2006, the first free and fair elections in Palestine brought Hamas to power. Throughout the campaign, Hamas had moderated its stance, publishing a manifesto that, for the first time, made no reference to Israel's destruction, and observing a unilateral cease fire even though its forces were fired upon.

Still, the editors of the New Republic asserted: "It is important to be clear about this: The results of free and fair elections can also be opposed." Charles Krauthammer of The Washington Post specified how: "cutting off Hamas completely: no recognition, no negotiation, no aid, nothing."

Although both Israel and the US had supported the holding of elections with Hamas's participation, they imposed crushing sanctions after Hamas won. But Hamas did not turn to extremism to counter this pressure; they maintained the ceasefire throughout their tenure, and peacefully resigned when their government ran out of money.

The irony is this: in all three cases in which an Islamist party was elected fairly to power, democracy was indeed dismantled, but not by the Islamists. It was dismantled by the paranoid reaction of America and its allies.

That reactive paranoia is back in full force, overlooking the fact that both Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are regular political parties. Neither is a violent group; neither is on America's list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is collaborating with Mohamed ElBaradei. Tunisia's Ennahda has stated that a coalition government would be the best electoral outcome, for that can help build consensus across the country. These are not the rants of extremists.

Most fundamentally, the paranoia subordinates democratic principles to stability. If regional stability implies Israel's security and an absence of war, then there should no reason for worry: No democracy has gone to war with another democracy, ever.

So the choice for America should be abundantly clear. There is no better outcome than whichever outcome is produced through free and fair elections.

Jalal Alamgir is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a Fellow at Harvard University's South Asia Initiative.