Jack Cohen

Islam and democracy

We are used to saying that there is no democracy in the Arab world. Among Muslims as a whole there is Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia that are more-or-less democratic. Pakistan plays at democracy, but doesn’t usually succeed. After the so-called Arab spring, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco have had democratic elections, but none of them have yet developed really democratic and transparent institutions. Now in Egypt, after a long process of voting, the first apparently democratic election has taken place and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi has been elected President of Egypt by a slim majority (3.4%). He is the first President elected in Egyptian history.

There are two potential drawbacks to this apparent advance: First, Mursi represents the Muslim Brotherhood and is likely to follow a strong Islamic course. This means that women will have to be covered in public, etc., etc. However, he has pledged in his speeches so far to represent all Egyptians, so maybe he won’t be so severe, we’ll see. Second, the military still controls the power in Egypt and by abrogating the previous parliamentary election and arrogating to themselves the right to promulgate laws, they have to some extent stripped power from the President. So now we may see either a tussle between the two forces or a rapprochement between them.

The military will continue to control the Defense and Finance Ministries, while other social areas will come under civilian control. This may be good for Israel and the West since it will allow the military to modulate the Islamist’s power and prevent any major change in the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty. But, that may be wishful thinking. A lot depends on whether or not the Egyptian military chooses to try to take control of Sinai or leaves it in a state of chaos, with terrorists freely able to attack Israel. If this is the case, eventually Israel will be forced to strike back.

Beyond the fact that an Islamist was elected as the first Preisdent of Egypt, the question arises “is Arab Islam compatible with true democracy?” By “true democracy” I mean transparent institutions, freedom of speech and of the press, an independent judiciary, protection of civil rights including women and protection of minorities (in Egypt that principally means the Coptic Christians). Until now most people would have answered “no” to that question, but now we must wait and see. Perhaps it will take more than a generation to find out the answer.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.