In his column in the latest issue of TIME magazine, Fareed Zakaria points to the specter seemingly hanging over the Middle East — the rise of Islamist political parties in Arab Spring countries like Egypt — and dispels its menace. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood appear genuine in their commitments to democratic and constitutional processes, which is only a good development as the region fitfully tries to move beyond an era of oppressive governments and zero-sum struggles for power.
In fact, the growth of democracy in the Middle East is under substantial threat, but not from Islamic democrats. The threat arises from the lingering authoritarian impulse of those in power–from ruling political parties and from the military. Obsessed with political Islam, we are ignoring the real danger on the ground.
What are those dangers? In part, the authoritarianism and military meddling that for decades defined the Middle East’s status quo, a status quo authored in part by administrations in Washington happy to prop up quasi-dictatorships like the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or the successive ranks of generals who once presided over a militantly secular Turkish state. Mubarak is now gone and the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party recently won a commanding number of seats in Egypt’s new parliament. In Turkey, a nominally Islamist party, led by the charismatic — some say demagogic — Recep Tayyip Erdogan, holds sway. In both instances, the Islamists are better custodians of the pluralistic democracy all want to see in the region than those that preceded (and, in many cases, sought to repress) them. But we must be vigilant that the legacy of authoritarian pasts doesn’t rear its head in a more hopeful present.