WASHINGTON — After being ousted from power last July, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world’s original Islamist movement, faces an existential moment. The group has been targeted with extreme repression, prompting a wave of commentary about the failure — or even death — of political Islam.
Premature obituaries of the Brotherhood usually turn out to be just that. As early as 1963, the political scientist Manfred Halpern wrote that secular nationalism had triumphed over political Islam. Half a century later, the Brotherhood’s opponents hold out hope that President Mohamed Morsi’s demise wasn’t that of a man or an organization, but of a worldview. They point to the incompatibility of Islamism and democracy, an odd claim considering that it was the democratically elected Mr. Morsi who was overthrown by the army and not the other way around.
Mr. Morsi was a failure, and he was ousted with the backing of millions. He was stubborn, incompetent and failed to govern inclusively. But there is a different, deeper failure, one that is likely to plague the region for decades to come: the fundamental inability of secular state systems to accommodate Islamist participation in the democratic process.
Americans tend to see liberalism and democracy as going hand in hand. But in the Middle East, democratization, contrary to academic and popular wisdom, is likely to push Islamist parties toward greater illiberalism.