Many Americans are watching the events in Egypt unfold with great interest and excitement. It seems like it could be a legitimate movement for democracy happening right in the heart of an area where dictators ruling with an iron hand are the norm. Sounds like an enticing idea, right?

Maybe… but while Obama and U.S. leaders are saying the right things, calling for an orderly transition should a change in power be in the offing, many Middle East experts are holding their collective breaths at what may transpire.

What it comes down to is the fact that democracy only works with a constitution or collective belief in the rights of the minority. Especially in the Middle East, where democratic institutions and governments have been quickly hijacked by religious extremism, and then the rights of all but the ruling powers trampled.

The most recent example was the Palestinian elections in Gaza. As the oft-quoted statement that “The Palestinians never miss a chance to miss a chance” goes, they had a chance to elect moderate leaders who would move forward the peace process and secure their own country. Instead they elected Hamas, who have it in their charter that “Jihad (is) its path and death for the case of Allah its most sublime belief.”

And they have lived up to that creed, embracing a campaign to get Gazans to adhere to a strict Muslim lifestyle. They publicly state that compliance with its “virtue campaign” is voluntary, but there are numerous reports of alleged offenders being beaten. And while they could easily lighten the hardship of their people by stopping the shooting of rockets into Israel and by toning down the rhetoric, they prefer instead to smuggle in arms and keep planning for the day they can wipe out Western influences, represented most immediately by the Israeli’s but encompassing all that the United States stands for.

And forget new elections, as a normal democracy would require. Hamas recently rejected elections that were due to be held in 2010, saying they were illegal and “will be null and their results unrecognized.”

An argument can be made asking how it is that we can support and encourage free elections, and then when we don’t like the results, distance ourselves, and even impose economic sanctions against the newly elected government. A good question. But again, true democracy has to respect the rights of the minorities; yes, the losers have rights as well. (Something our leaders here in the U.S. have been forgetting lately.) It has to allow for a judgment on what the elected leaders are doing in the form of follow-up elections. A democratically elected leadership who usurps power and doesn’t allow for opposition is no practitioner of democracy.

There were protests against the Shah of Iran on college campuses all over the U.S. back in the ‘70s. The Shah was certainly a ruthless dictator, and not worthy of our support. But when the Iranians rose up to overthrow him, it opened the door for the Ayatollah Khomeini to return from exile and become the leader of the Islamic revolution, from which we are still suffering the consequences today. And in retrospect many Iranians feel they were better off under the Shah than under the regime that replaced it.

Lebanon is also an example of an unfortunate turn for a democratic government. It was once a thriving tourist destination, neutral in the turmoil of the Middle East wars, with Christian and Muslim populations living in some semblance of harmony. In fact, Beirut was referred to as the “Paris of the Middle East.” But the democracy was soon overtaken by the radical Muslim infiltrators from outside the country, and it became a battleground where today the terrorist group Hezbollah is the primary force in the government.

A scary proposition in Egypt is the possible role of the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful underground force in Egypt. They are a group that is similar in many respects to Hamas, in that they call for jihad, and they call for adherence to strict religious Islamic doctrine, as decided by themselves.

The creed of the Brotherhood is mostly defined by Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. He was hanged in 1966, but his writings are revered by his followers, chief among them the Muslim Brotherhood. His goals were stated clearly and concisely: “Jahiliyya is always evil in whatever form it manifests itself, and it always seeks to crush true Islam. Jihad by force is used to annihilate jahili regimes and replace them by true Muslim ones.”

Qutb believed in a world-conspiracy of the “Christian West, Marxist Communism, and World Jewry“ against true Islam. These forces represent jahiliyya at its worst, and he calls for their destruction by force.

As of yet, there has been no attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to become a player in the protests. But their history has been one of patience, and a belief that the time will come when they ascend to power. If they see this as the opportunity to act, they will have the support of many in the Muslim world.

What actions the U.S. and the West might take is a slippery slope. If we are seen as trying to install a government, or even instill a philosophy, it could cause an opposite reaction. Less than one-third of Egyptians view the U.S. as a country that “will do the right thing.”

So for now we sit and watch. What transpires may have major consequences on the future of the region, and indeed, the future of the world. If a radical regime rises in Egypt, coupled with the one in Iran, the region will be a tinderbox just waiting for a match to ignite it.

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