- - Monday, December 10, 2012

Who is worse, President Mohammed Morsi, the elected Islamist seeking to apply Islamic law in Egypt, or former President Hosni Mubarak, the dictator ousted for trying to start a dynasty? More broadly, will a liberal, democratic order be more likely to emerge under Islamist ideologues who prevail through the ballot box or under greedy dictators with no particular agenda beyond their own survival and power?

Mr. Morsi’s recent actions provide an answer, establishing that Islamists are worse than dictators.

This issue came up in an interesting debate for Intelligence Squared U.S. in early October when Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress argued, “Better elected Islamists than dictators,” while Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy and I made the counter-argument. Well, no one really argued “for” anyone. The other team did not endorse Islamists and we certainly did not celebrate dictators. The issue, rather, was which sort of ruler is the lesser of two evils, and can be cudgeled toward democracy.

Mr. Katulis blamed dictatorships for fostering “the sorts of ideologies” that led to Sept. 11, 2001, and Mr. Gerecht insisted that military juntas, not Islamists, generally are “the real danger. The only way you’re going to get a more liberal order in the Middle East is through people of faith” who vote Islamists into office. Mr. Katulis argued that elected Islamists change and morph, becoming less ideological and more practical. They evolve in response to the rough and tumble of politics to focus on “basic needs” such as security and jobs.


In Iraq, Mr. Gerecht professed to find that “a tidal wave of people who were once hard-core Islamists have become pretty profound democrats, if not liberals.” As for Egypt, he noted approvingly but inaccurately that “the Muslim Brotherhood is having serious internal debates because they haven’t figured out how to handle [their success]. That’s what we want. We want them to fight it out.”

Mr. Jasser and I replied to this catalog of inaccuracies (military juntas led to Sept. 11?) and wishful thinking (true believers will compromise on their goals? a tidal wave of Iraqi Islamists became liberals?) by stating first that ideologues are “dictators on steroids” who don’t moderate upon reaching power but dig themselves in, building foundations to remain indefinitely in office. Second, ideologues neglect the very issues that our opponents stressed — security and jobs — in favor of implementing Islamic laws. Greedy dictators, in contrast, short on ideology, do not have a vision of society and so can be convinced to move toward economic development, personal freedoms, an open political process and rule of law (for example, South Korea).

Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have followed our script exactly. Since taking power in August, Mr. Morsi sidelined the military, then focused on entrenching and expanding his supremacy, most notably by issuing a series of orders on Nov. 22 that arrogated autocratic powers to himself, and spreading Zionist conspiracy theories about his opponents. Then he rammed through an Islamist-oriented constitution on Nov. 30 and called a snap referendum on it for Dec. 15. Consumed with these two tasks, he virtually ignored the myriad issues afflicting Egypt, especially the looming economic crisis and the lack of funds to pay for imported food.

Mr. Morsi’s power grab led anti-Islamist Egyptians to join forces as the “National Salvation Front” and confront Islamists in the most violent street clashes in six decades. These forced him to retreat partially from his Nov. 22 orders. Ironically, after deftly sidelining the military in August, Mr. Morsi’s overreach created circumstances that returned ultimate authority to the generals, who can intervene for or against him. By choosing Islamist sympathizers as top officers and offering the military enhanced privileges in the proposed constitution, he has in all likelihood won their support. Martial law appears likely next.

In just three months, Mr. Morsi has shown that he aspires to dictatorial powers greater than Mr. Mubarak’s and that his rule portends to be an even greater calamity for Egypt. He has neatly vindicated Mr. Jasser’s and my point: Dictators are better than elected Islamists. As I noted in the debate, Westerners should slam the door hard on ideological dictators like Islamists while pressuring greedy dictators to relax their grip on civil society. This offers the only exit from the false choice between two forms of tyranny.

Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum.