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The new Arab revolt

What if democracy brings Islamist government? And other key questions.

One of my favourite lines from David Gardner's Last Chance: the Middle East in the Balance is the following: "Liberals tend to be coteries who like whisky and the west but the masses incline towards men in beards" – or "men in turbans", as Gardner, now the FT's international affairs editor, puts it elsewhere in the book.

This has been the dilemma at the heart of western attitudes towards the Middle East for decades now. Should we support friendly autocrats who oversaw regimes with secular veneers or condemn their repression and give our backing to pro-democracy groups? That we have done the former is to a large extent because our governments have feared the consequences of the dictators' departure. Whisky-drinking liberals are small elites that are unlikely to be elected. Men in turbans, however, are popular . . . but we don't like the idea of dealing with any more of them than we have to.

It is unclear what a democratic, post-Mubarak Egypt might look like (Tunisia, where secularism is entrenched and the Islamist opposition insignificant, is no guide). Nor can we be certain of the stripe of government that would be elected in other Arab states that were granted the luxury of a free vote.

But it is worth asking a few questions about the possible results, both in Egypt and in any other states in the Middle East that may follow suit.

1. If we – by which I mean the governments of Europe and North America – come out in favour of popular uprisings that sweep away dictators, how do we justify our past (indeed, our very recent) support for autocrats such as Mubarak?

2. If we are in favour of democracy in Tunisia and Egypt, how does this fit with our continuing friendly relations with the absolute monarchies of the Gulf?

3. We say that we wish the voices of the people to be heard. But will we want to listen to what they say? Or does this only apply if Egypt, say, elects an internationally respected moderate, such as Mohamed ElBaradei? (And already some are warning about him – see this Jerusalem Post article.)

4. If we say that only a democratic vote confers legitimacy on a government, why did the US and the EU refuse to recognise Hamas's election victory in 2006?

5. How will we deal with, and how will we view, the likes of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi? Condemned as a "preacher of hate", he was not allowed into the UK in 2008. On the other hand, he has been condemned by jihadist groups for denouncing the 9/11 attacks and al-Qaeda. Foreign Policy magazine and others regularly refer to him as "probably the single most influential Sunni Islamist figure in the Arab world".

He has turned down the position of Supreme Guide to the Muslim Brotherhood at least once. Figures such as al-Qaradawi will have enormous importance in Arab democracies. Will we engage with them – or will we continue to ban them from our countries?

It may be that, contrary to the opinion of David Gardner and many other long-time observers of the Middle East, liberals turn out not to be just small coteries, but to have much wider appeal. If so – and it sounds like wishful thinking to me – they'd better keep quiet about the whisky-drinking.

If, however, the democratic transitions that we are now so delighted to see end up bringing Islamist-leaning governments to power, how will we react? At the very least, such administrations are not the most naturally ardent defenders of western notions of sexual freedom and equality. Will our first act be to castigate them for that?

In the light of ongoing developments, my recent posting on a new book on the Muslim Brotherhood was more timely than I could have realised. My series last summer on Rethinking Islamism is also relevant. I am aware – how could I not have been! – that it proved distinctly unpopular with many readers. But here is my problem with some of the comments. I closed Rethinking Islamism IV last June by quoting the highly regarded scholar Olivier Roy:

If democratisation means more nationalism and more sharia, this is far from what the western promoters of democratisation envisaged. But this problem must be faced head-on by saying: there is no way not to engage the Islamists. There is no alternative. We in the west have to make a choice between [Turkey's Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and the Taliban. And if we don't choose Erdoğan, we'll get the Taliban.

The first comment after the piece was published began: "I totally reject both Erdogan and Taliban . . . It is outright insane to wish to dally with Islamists to any degree."

But this is not about "wishing" to "dally" with anyone. This is about the possible consequences of democracy in the region, which on any reasonable analysis includes the likelihood of Islamist-leaning governments coming to power. Are we ready to deal with them, to be open to dialogue and understanding? Or will our minds be so clouded by fear of the word "Islamist" that we cannot even recognise Turkey's AKP government as a moderate administration with which we should be glad to do business?

If so, it will be us who put a dampener on the euphoria accompanying the removal of the tyrants. Not to mention that we'll have shown that "democracy" to us means the freedom to choose your own government – so long as we approve of it.

Tags:Egypt