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Deceived by Democracy

ISTANBUL – Popular protests in Turkey last May, together with the recent ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, have reinvigorated debate about political Islam’s compatibility with democracy. But the question is not whether an Islamist-dominated democracy is viable; recent history has demonstrated that it is. Instead, we should be asking whether political Islam can coexist with a particular type of democracy – one that is inclusive, tolerant, and compassionate.

In both Turkey and Egypt, Islamist parties – the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Muslim Brotherhood, respectively – rose to power through free and fair elections. (In fact, the AKP has been able to remain in power through two subsequent elections.) But both soon began to steer their respective political systems toward raw majoritian rule. In Turkey, growing frustration with this non-inclusive style of governance erupted in June, when the proposed development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park triggered non-violent anti-government protests, which quickly spread across the country.

Protests in Egypt went further, culminating in a military coup that deposed Morsi, who had been popularly elected only a year earlier, while restoring, at least for now, the army’s dominance of Egyptian politics – an outcome that reflects the extent of Egyptians’ dissatisfaction with the Brotherhood’s leadership. Beyond adopting an increasingly divisive governance style, the Brothers failed to implement effective policies to repair Egypt’s shattered economy and improve living standards.

Do these developments reveal an inherent tendency in political Islam toward majoritarianism? Revisiting the challenges that the AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood faced in becoming two of the world’s most influential Islamist parties can provide valuable insight into this fundamental question.