Although in the early days of Egypt's revolution, the predominant narrative in American media and decision-making circles insisted that the revolution had been brought about by essentially secular people --- that Egypt was on the verge of becoming a true liberal democracy -- later, the involvement of Islamist groups in the revolution became too obvious to overlook.
At first, everyone was hearing about schisms among the Islamists, how their "new generation," particularly those seceding from the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), were completely different from their predecessors. The "new generation," it was said, was worldly, open-minded and embraced the Western values of tolerance and diversity. With these new leaders in charge, it was further said, Egypt was on the verge of becoming a true liberal democracy.
Today, as acknowledging the ascent of Islamism seems unavoidable, the newest trend is to "engage" the more "moderate" Islamist groups, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood, who, according to the NY Times webpage on the Muslim Brotherhood, are "not necessarily intent on establishing an Islamic state." This policy can probably be seen most piercingly just a few weeks ago in the official invitation to dialogue extended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, the rhetoric in Washington DC has changed. No one is talking about liberal democracy any more; the conversation now is all about being "realistic." This approach will be even more relevant after the Islamist-only million-man march for "defending identity and popular will," which most likely will deal the final blow to any claim to power by the secular parties.
Although it is probably already too late for US foreign policy to influence the course of events in Egypt, the United States' level of official engagement with the MB would do well to be minimal, otherwise, to borrow from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the administration will be simply "defining deviancy down": increasing American tolerance for legitimizing Islamism. Discussing whether the MB is truly "moderate" is irrelevant, as the very concept of "moderate Islamism is oxymoronic. The term "moderate" has been used, fallaciously, only to clarify the distinction between Muslims (referred to as moderates) and Islamists (referred to as radicals). To flesh out this distinction a bit, Islam is a religion: a set of metaphysical and ethical beliefs, equivalent in the West to Christianity or Judaism. Islamism is a political Ideology: prescribing how governments, societies and individuals should act, and equivalent in the West to, say, Marxism. A devout Muslim, for example, will not drink alcohol and he may indeed believe that no one should; an Islamist, by contrast, seeks to establish a government that bans alcohol entirely.
Many in the West believe that Islamism is equivalent to strict adherence to the teachings of Islam, which is why they apply the term "moderate" to those who are not so strict. The fact is that the core tenets of Islamism are not derived from the religion, but are instead based on theories of mostly modern origins, Those who reject these tenets are not "moderate" Muslims, they are just not Islamist.
An Islamist cannot be "moderate" about these tenets, particularly the Sovereignty of Shari'a Law (Hakimiya) and Superiority of the (early) Islamic Civilization. While definitions of Shari'a Law and the Islamic civilization may vary, the historical predominance of orthodoxy, particularly in Sunni Islam, has kept variations at a minimum. Nonetheless these two maxims -- imposing Shari'a Law and the superiority of Islam -- are in direct opposition to Western Liberalism as we know it. Shari'a Law is opposed to the notion of universal and individual Human Rights; and the Islamic Civilization is solely based on the concept of "Justice": whatever is inside Shari'a Law is just, whatever is outside Shari'a Law is unjust, with no interest at all in the concept of "freedom of choice."
Islamist "moderation" is, in fact, nothing but pragmatism misconstrued. Islamists may, for example, embrace democracy as means of imposing Shari'a Law, or they may renounce violence as a means to prove the Superiority of Islam, but the ends – imposing Shari'a Law and the Superiority of Islam -- remain the same. In this light, it is undeniable that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is among the most pragmatic -- but not always benign. Consider this fatwa from the official MB website, responding to a query on whether working for a bank is forbidden because of the practice of usury: "Usury is no longer related to a bank employee or a company clerk, it is part of our entire economic and financial system (…), a situation will not be changed or mitigated by one employee's refraining from working for a bank or a company, and if we forbade every Muslim from working in banks, the result would be that non-Muslims, Jews and others, would control the affairs of banks".
Pragmatism, however, is double-edged. While the necessities of modern life, or an authoritarian regime, may force pragmatic Islamists such as the MB to pursue courses they deem incompatible with Islam, such as working for banks, pressure from moiré ideologically committed and less pragmatic groups such as the Salafis, in a democratic Egypt, could have the MB embrace a stricter line to win their votes.
This dynamic -- well understood and anticipated by every Islamist -- undermines all optimistic analyses about secessions and differences within the Islamist spectrum. Ahmed El-Naqib, for instance, one of the most respected Salafi authorities, responded to the question if Salafis would support the MB in the elections by saying: "If the MB could, through our help, come to power, what is the problem? We help them. They are not infidels (kafirs). The shoe of one member of the MB is closer to us than a nation of those infidels." When one of the listeners raised the objection that "[the MB's] statements are scary [meaning too soft]," Al-Naqib reassured him: "It is because they are being watched. Nazarenes [the Salafist term for Christians] are watching them. America is watching them. The secular parties are watching them. They try to come with arguments that do not scare people off. But we should remain barefaced. We should remain the scarecrows. These have to be scared as well. Thus a hand taps the shoulder, and a hand slaps the neck."
Leaders of the MB are not even being that subtle about hiding their convictions. In an interview with Michael J. Totten and Armin Rosen earlier this month, Essam El-Erian, one of three leaders of the MB's newly established political party, and who is considered the "moderate" face of the MB, gave a long anti-American diatribe, saying that Qaddafi was an American agent and implying some conspiracy to the 9/11 attacks.
Another issue that will never be touched by "moderation" is the unflinching animosity towards Israel. The political program of the MB's Freedom and Justice Party states on page 24 that: "The issue of Palestine is the most important issues of Egyptian national security, in addition to being an Arab or Muslim cause, because the Zionist Entity is a racist colonizing expansionist entity, possessing weapons of mass destruction, which has caused the outbreak of many wars in the region, affecting the geographical, political, social and economic situation, disrupting development programs and displacing people from their homes, in addition to the acquisition of Islamic and Christian holy places in Palestine. Therefore the party sees the need to make all efforts to resolve this issue and ensure the rights of Palestinian self-determination and the return of refugees to their homes, establish their state and its capital Jerusalem, restore all the holy places of Muslims and Christians in Palestine and the evacuation of the entire region (Middle East) of weapons of mass destruction." Of course, this sounds very "moderate" when compared to the frequent calls from the MB leadership, including the Supreme Guide, to nullify the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, as well as literally thousands of Anti-Semitic articles and statements by its members. Google-searching the term "[the] Zionists" in Arabic on the official MB official website renders an impressive 70,500 results; you can guess how many of those are favorable.
The newly-discovered "realism" of the State Department will be as inept and counter-productive as its preceding Idealism. While Egypt's Islamists may not end up taking complete control over the country in the near future, they are certainly on the right track for the farther future. The generation of the Arab Spring, and their fans in the West, will most likely be facing an enemy they never thought existed: Democratic Tyranny – despotic Islamist rule imposed by the majority through the ballot box – the worst of all.