Politicians opposed to reform and change have always used fear as a means of persuading the people to forswear choice in the name of stability.
Their mantra recalls that of Democritus, nicknamed by Avicenna as “The Happy Philosopher.”
Democritus’ slogan was: “Desire what you have!”
However, when change has already happened, its opponents abandon Democritus in favour of Alice, Lewis Carroll’s little explorer of the Wonderland. There, the slogan is: “Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday; but never never today!”
Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the use of both stratagems in Tunisia and Egypt.
At first, the dominant elite were insisting that change could only lead to disaster. When change came and the roof of heavens did not fall, the elite switched to arguments in favour of postponing elections “at least for a while.”
This is now the tune being played by some politicians in Egypt, among them some actual or putative presidential candidates.
“It would be wise to postpone for a while,” says Amr Moussa, a former Secretary General of the Arab League and presidential candidate.
Five years ago, Moussa had used the same argument in a conversation we had about Iraq during a Davos gathering.
“Iraqis are not ready,” he told me. “It is better to wait for a while.”
I think that Moussa was sincere then and is sincere now.
However, I also think he was wrong then and is wrong now.
The reasons why he is wrong are many.
To start with, it is not clear how long “a while” would be.
Former President Hosni Mubarak also thought that Egypt had to wait “a while” before holding meaningful elections.
Moussa has not spelled out why it would be wise to postpone the elections.
Others, however, are more specific: early elections could only benefit the Muslim Brotherhood because it is the best organized group at the moment.
That argument, however, is too clever by half, to say the least.
To start with, at any given time, one party could be identified as the best organized.
For example, had elections be held just six months ago, the best organized party would have been the National Democratic Party. Today, it doesn’t even exist.
Next, the argument assumes that there is a one-size-fits-all degree of organization for all parties.
At any given time some parties are more organized than others. One cannot wait until all parties, in the case of Egypt over 60 of them, reach a standard level of organization.
In any case, who is to decide what that standard level of organization is?
The argument is based on the false assumption that if we postpone the elections, all parties, except one, would quickly organize to the unknown level we desire.
The exception would be The Muslim Brotherhood.
However, if The Brotherhood were ready to risk imprisonment and execution by getting organized under the nose of the police state, would they just lie on the beach now that they have the chance to grow their movement in an atmosphere of freedom and security?
The argument for “postponement” could be questioned on a far more important ground: the implicit claim that the judgment of the people could be trusted only if it produces a certain result. In other words, elections would be good for Egypt only if The Brotherhood is the loser.
However, The Brotherhood is part of Egyptian society and it is up to Egyptians to decide what place to assign it in a future pluralist system.
Those who fear elections always refer to Hitler’s electoral victory in Germany in 1932. However, that was one of the few historic exceptions that prove the rule. More importantly, the Nazis were not the best organized party at the time. That title routinely went to the Communist Party.
In 1992 and 1993, the Algerian military-security machine opposed elections with the argument that it was imperative to prevent the Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS) from winning. That strategy pushed the country to the edge of civil war and ended up claiming over 100,000 lives.
In the end, what helped Algeria gain a measure of stability and serenity was the series of elections held from 1995 onwards. Though far from perfect, those elections, provided opportunities for defeating the radical Islamists on the political battlefield.
The sooner Egypt and Tunisia hold elections the better the chances of building a pluralist system.
What is needed right away is a snapshot of opinion in Tunisia and Egypt as they emerge from decades of despotic rule. By showing where those societies are today, the snapshot would also reveal their respective potentials for progress towards pluralism.
There is no doubt that The Brotherhood is a profoundly anti-democratic party, if only because its ideology allows no space for individual freedoms.
However, let us not forget that The Brotherhood, created and continuing to thrive under successive despotic regimes, has had no choice but to reflect the violence and intolerance of those regimes. Under a new democratic regime, The Brotherhood might find it politically profitable to move towards a more moderate posture.
There are already signs that The Brotherhood is trying to adopt the so-called “Turkish model” that has helped the Justice and Development Party (AKP) increase the Islamist share of the vote from five per cent in 1983 to 43 per cent three years ago.
The Tunisian branch of The Brotherhood, known as an-Nahda (Awakening) has publicly committed itself to emulating the AKP.
A quarter of a century ago, the Rifah (Welfare) Party was a clear and present danger to Turkish democracy. Today, the AKP, though a reactionary party, is no such danger.
For decades, we saw a similar development in Western democracies as their Communist parties moved away from a radical revolutionary posture and adopted relatively moderate positions within parliamentary systems.
More recently, we have also seen this in the case of some radical Islamist parties in Iraq.
Progressive and secular parties in Tunisia and Egypt should reject the strategy of fear and trust the judgment of the people. They could win a majority through good arguments and hard work, not by dreaming of scenarios to cheat their rivals out of an uncertain victory.