The Arab Spring became the Arab fall, and in this Arab winter the people's voices are being heard at the ballot box.
The Egyptian Revolution that began in January captured international attention, not just because of the nation's historical significance as the great cradle of African civilization, but largely because of the fact that it serves as a gateway of American diplomacy to the Muslim and Arab societies of Africa and the Middle East.
On Nov. 30, as officials started counting the results of Egypt's first democratic parliamentary elections, many political analysts, Republican and Democrat, Christian and Muslim, began to question the realpolitik implications of a free election process in a Muslim nation-state. Namely, what will a democratically elected Islamic Egypt look like?
What principles will govern the rule of law? Who will protect the rights of women, religious minorities and special interest communities? What will the role of military forces be? And will the youth, who led the largely peaceful revolts in the hopes of a liberal democratic state, be forced to trade Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship for a tyranny of Islamist idealism?
What the Egyptian People Chose
Based on confirmed reports released Dec. 2, the Egyptian elections had garnered a 62 percent turnout. Women and men cast their votes, and the winners seem to be the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, represented now as the Freedom and Justice Party. Based on the preliminary count, the Islamist FJP received 40 percent of the vote, the Salafists received 25 percent and the liberal coalition, as the Egyptian Bloc, just slightly less.
These numbers are troubling to liberals because they suggest that the Islamist majority will only grow wider. The voting is being conducted regionally, and as such, the areas that have already been represented are among the most liberal districts.
But what does this all mean? The Muslim Brotherhood has traditionally combined political activism with charity, and under Mubarak's regime, it was largely active in providing much-needed food and services to the poor in rural areas across Egypt. This explains the Brotherhood's far reach, organization and appeal.
By contrast, the more liberal youth demonstrators, who have been greatly influenced by Western democratic principles, lack the political power, structure and organization to build a politically successful establishment. But that doesn't mean the Freedom and Justice Party spells doom for democratic freedoms. If anything, it is simply unpredictable.
In the short period since results have been tallied, the various leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have sent mixed signals about their political intentions. The Brotherhood's English-language website describes its principles as being primarily concerned with the introduction of Shariah law as "the basis controlling the affairs of state and society," and that one of its aims is to unify "Islamic countries and states, mainly among the Arab states … liberating them from foreign imperialism."
The Brotherhood's electoral success, therefore, will have wider consequences for the rights of women and Egypt's Christian minority. Also, from a global perspective, the presence of fringe groups within the Brotherhood provides more pressing concerns. Many Egyptian nationalists, for instance, have accused the Brotherhood of violent killings in the past, and some fear that the group offers cover for those who would participate in terrorist activity.
The Salafists, by comparison, are even more extreme religiously. They represent those Muslims who remain inflexible with regard to the limits of the role of women and will certainly advocate a ban on alcohol, against the wishes of liberal Egyptians and those who wish to see Egypt's tourism flourish.
Marina Ottaway, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Washington Post, "The Muslim Brotherhood has to make a decision to form an alliance with the Salafi Party and create a more Islamist state or try to form a coalition with more liberal elements."
Hedayat Abdel Nabi, an Egyptian journalist, opined in the same article, "We have to get our act together so we don't go back to the Stone Age." Nabi, who is now working on the presidential campaign of Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League, concluded, "This is democracy and we have to accept the outcome."
Many believe that the success of these Islamist groups is purely due to the fact that they have been well-financed, well-prepared and better organized. And all this in spite of a reported $200 million in aid to liberal organizations from the Obama administration, mostly funded through USAID and the State Department.
The New York Times reported, "Poorly organized and internally divided, the liberal parties could not compete with Islamists disciplined by decades as the sole opposition to Mubarak." In the future, however, there is hope that as liberal organizations become more established, they can grow both in popularity and electoral effect.
But the role of America's involvement remains unresolved.
When Their Democracy Doesn't Look Like Our Democracy
Many believe that the Egyptian military, which currently receives $1.3 billion in aid annually from the United States, should no longer be supported against the interests of that country's people. This will be an important challenge for President Obama, at least in the initial stages of the transition.
Republicans like Newt Gingrich have already attacked the president's initial decision to call for Mubarak to step down because — despite being a dictator — he had been a loyal ally, serving U.S. interests in the Middle East. Yet aside from concerns of regional stability and Israeli security, the U.S. remains concerned that nations like Egypt can become breeding grounds for the kind of anti-American sentiment that gave birth to the 9/11 attacks.
But perhaps after a decade of our foreign policy being fueled by 9/11 fears, we can began to see these uprisings not through an American or European lens but through the eyes of the very people who are fighting for their own freedom, declaring their own destiny. Viewed this way, the role of U.S. militarism can shift in a more positive direction.
But perhaps a little history lesson is necessary to remind people of the conditions that led to the Arab revolts. After the Tunisian uprisings, in December of 2010, young Egyptians headed to Tahrir Square in opposition to Mubarak's 30-year dictatorial rule, during which time emergency law was unilaterally enforced, and an expansion of police powers caused thousands to be held and detained without trial or charge. Open demonstrations were illegal, and electoral political opposition was mute. Mubarak's presidency went unchallenged, and he remained the only presidential option, with a simple "yes" or "no" vote allowed.
The inequities were not just political but also economic. In late 2010 more than 40 percent of Egypt's 80 million people lived on roughly $2 per day. Unemployment in Egypt remains almost 10 times as high for those with college educations as those without, and urban youths who filled the streets in January are disproportionately without resources, options or hope. These circumstances provided a potent formula for the discontent that became the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
Yet, already there have been suggestions that President Obama's administration should find ways to influence or intervene if the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extremist Salafists gain political advantage in this newly elected Parliament, in order to protect U.S. diplomatic interests. There seems to be little discussion about the more important concerns of the actual Egyptian people.
The basis for this perspective is obviously rooted in America's belief that an Islamist-controlled Egypt will pose a greater national security threat to Israel. This premise, though it may have some basis in fact, can result in a foreign policy approach that is ultimately misguided, fundamentally un-American and an assault on the very principles of democracy.
If African and Arab Muslims choose to live in a society governed by Shariah law, they have the right to do so. The United Nations charters and treaties stipulate that all people have the right to self-determination. It has been a goal of American foreign policy to encourage free speech, assembly and democratically held elections in nations that, until now, had not enjoyed our kind of freedom.
This is admirable. But democracy, as it is conceived imperialistically, has all the dangers of becoming dictatorial if left unchecked. Any effort by the U.S. government to use unwarranted force to impose a U.S.-style democracy in Africa or the Middle East should be shunned, not encouraged.
If the Egyptian people democratically vote for a particular form of government, they should be so governed — without the outside influences (military or otherwise) of the United States, Europe or Israel.
How to Learn From the Mistakes of the Past
So what are the wider implications for the United States and Israel? At present Tunisia, Egypt's neighbor, is experiencing continued unrest following the implementation of its new government. The newly liberated Libya is far from forming a functioning government in a post-Qaddafi world. The U.S. military, honoring President Obama's promise, will exit Iraq in the coming weeks, but lingering concerns of a potentially nuclear Iran leave Israelis in particular in a precarious situation.
Under President George W. Bush, the expansion of U.S. military engagement was excessive. It redefined America as a new age imperialistic force. I would go as far to compare it with the 17th-century European colonialism that resulted in the centuries-long enslavement of Africans, the political and indentured servitude of India and the decimation of indigenous peoples across continents. The same manifest destiny that drove European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries to civilize people they saw as savages and uncultured masses may now be used to impose a Judeo-Christian form of democracy on the Muslim world.
American diplomacy can no longer afford to be governed by militarism. President Obama seems to understand that, and as such has approached the politics surrounding the Arab uprisings and the ongoing debates between the Palestinians and Israel with great care. But as the 2012 election approaches, Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann attempt to appeal to conservative voters, with promises of even broader military might and presence. That perspective is a world apart from any sustainable reality.
The past 10 years, in which America has waged two wars, borrowed heavily to finance them, suffered crippling domestic economic consequences and lost countless American and foreign lives, should have taught us a lesson never to repeat this. It is the business of America's president and Congress to protect its borders against dangers both foreign and domestic. As responsible global citizens, we should aid those in need and encourage peace and prosperity as much as we possibly can. But all people are born with the right to self-determination. And nations have the right to religious autonomy.
That said, America remains a force for good in the world. Our recent commitment to the limited engagement in Libya is perhaps the best example of the strategy we should employ. Instead of the kind of unilateral action used by Bush, President Obama chose coalition and cooperation with allied forces.
The administration has now articulated a new standard in its responses to both Libya and most recently Syria by reiterating that leaders who employ violence against their own citizens are not fit to rule. This is an important standard, and one that honors American values. But the decision not to send U.S. troops into Libya, and the caution being used with regard to Syria, is equally illustrative. It reflects a respect for international diplomacy and a need for deference — not dominance — in an increasingly dynamic and globalized world.
Egypt's pyramids, which undoubtedly hold within their walls the wisdom of millennia past, reflect the very fact that America — in all of its 235 years — still has so much to learn, and so much further to go. This nation is still struggling with the consequences of its own original sin of slavery. Racism, poverty and disenfranchisement remain at the forefront of our politics, the solutions and answers to which remain unresolved. To that end, it seems far more prudent for our resources to be lent to perfecting democracy here, not policing or dictating democracy abroad.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.