We’re already into the second summer of the “Arab spring”, but this week saw probably its biggest milestone so far, as Egypt, the established leader of the Arab world, celebrated its first democratic election of a president — the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. It’s therefore disappointing to see how much of the foreign reaction was (a) pessimistic in tone and (b) focused not on the significance for Egypt, or even for Arabs in general, but for relations with the West, with Israel, or even with Iran.

Read, for example, White House press secretary Jay Carney  fending off questions about the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, ties with Iran, and Republican conspiracy theories, ultimately calling on “the Egyptian government to continue to fulfil Egypt’s role as a pillar of regional peace, security and stability”.

Some people just can’t help themselves when it comes to “Islamists”. Fox News has already been caught posting a bogus video supposedly of Morsi (but actually of a cleric called Safwat al-Hegazy) proposing to make Jerusalem his capital.

But for the foreseeable future, the politics of Israel and Iran will be low on Morsi’s list of priorities. With no parliament, no constitution and a military council that seems to have developed a disturbing taste for politics, his concerns will be overwhelmingly domestic. He needs to build as broad a base as possible: hence reports that the Brotherhood has approached respected Nobel laureate Mohamed El-Baradei as a potential prime minister. (As to how Morsi might approach Israel when he does get around to it, Juan Cole has a typically sensible take.)

I’m no friend to either religious fundamentalism or theocratic government, but it’s absurd to think that in countries that are strongly religious you can somehow exclude religion from the political realm and still have democracy. And the majority of Egyptians evidently feel, quite rightly, that military dictatorship is too high a price to pay for secularism.

Imagine if, following the Second World War, religious parties had been shut out of participation in western Europe. The re-establishment of democracy in Germany, France and Italy would have been crippled from the start. Instead, Christian Democrat parties became bulwarks of liberal democracy. Given the right conditions, Islamist parties can do the same — we already have Turkey as an example.

The biggest danger for Egypt has always been that the Brotherhood and the military would conspire to share power between them at the expense of the liberal and democratic forces. But by overplaying their hand over the past couple of weeks the military seem to have ruined that option, at least for the time being. Morsi knows that he needs the support of the revolutionary masses in order to hold his own against the generals.

That should also push him towards becoming a strong advocate for democracy within the Middle East. The more of Egypt’s neighbours take the democratic road, the harder it will be for military rule to make a comeback. Hence the coolness of congratulations from Saudi Arabia, which has supported some aspects of the Arab Spring but has spent much of it looking nervously over its shoulder, and would much have preferred the generals’ candidate, Ahmed Shafiq.

So this is a moment of hope for the region, but most of all it is a moment for the Egyptians themselves. Wendell Steavenson at The New Yorker possibly put it best:

“… in the middle of all the ongoing uncertainty, today was a moment to reflect that, despite everything, a free and fair election was conducted and that Egypt, for the first time in its seven-thousand-year history, as one protester in Tahrir Square put it to me, had chosen its own leader.”

Peter Fray

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