Is Democracy a Right for Islamists As Well?

By Abdel Rahman Al-Rashed

Translation provided by Tony Badran (The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies)

Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat
June 22, 2005

At her speech at the American University in Cairo, Condoleezza Rice caused a lot of confusion when she appeared to insist on opening the door for Islamists to gain power. Does Rice mean what she said, or realize its implications? Giving the Islamists power isn't the problem, it's removing them from power democratically that will be impossible, as is the case with all dogmatic ideological movements, be they Islamist or Communist. Now, when they are out of power, Islamists call for peaceful change of power and equal political rights, and give religious sanction to elections. But their literature belies their true intentions. Just look at Iran, where once the Islamists seized power they believed in alternating it only among themselves.

How will she [Rice] guarantee the rotation of power, so that the clerics of the Muslim Brotherhood don't end up ruling forever like the clerics of Iran? How will she protect the basic laws from the amendments by [Islamist] members of parliament seeking to deny people their freedom of expression, and denying the minorities their rights in the name of the majority?

The problem in Egypt, as in other [Arab] states, is not only the ruling regime, but how democracy is conceived. Democracy does not just mean the rule of 51% of the population; rather, it also means guaranteeing the rights of the all citizens. Democracy does not consist merely of running for office, voting and elections; its first pillar is the guarantee of basic constitutional rights that cannot be taken away, even by the people's representatives in Parliament. These include the right to change rulers, freedom of expression, and other basic freedoms that cannot be altered in the constitution, no matter who wins.

In several Arab states elected councils and representatives have turned on the constitution and changed it in the name of the majority, removing people's basic civil rights. This is a dictatorship of the majority.

This is what people are afraid of in Iraq today. It has happened before, and may happen in Egypt. The issue is not whether the Muslim Brothers should hold political office should they win the elections, for that is their right. The concern is how to prevent their representatives, if they are a majority in parliament, from making radical changes to people's basic rights and the basic laws. Islamists may be able to gain the right to rule through elections, but first they must show their respect for the laws that would bring them to power.

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