But, as troubling as this may be for Arab liberals, mainstream Islamist movements have been and are likely to remain committed to a democratic process. The scenario of Islamists coming to power through democratic elections only to end democracy has never actually happened. Nor are their beliefs necessarily antithetical to pluralism; Brotherhood-like groups approach Islamic law with flexibility. Far from being textual literalists, their illiberalism tends toward the vague, populist variety. And they’ve come a long way from the 1960s and ’70s, when they saw democracy itself as a foreign import.
This is likely to provide little solace to those who see Islamists, whatever their democratic commitments, as an existential threat. If it is in fact a zero-sum battle, then the other option is to marginalize Islamist parties or eliminate them altogether, which the military-backed regime in Egypt is currently attempting. Such an effort, which many regime supporters see as a necessary evil, is not only bloody and destabilizing but also a fool’s errand. You can try to kill an organization, but killing an idea is a different matter entirely.
Arab autocrats have convinced themselves that past failures to crush the Islamist opposition are a result of not enough force, rather than too much. This latest attempt, backed by Gulf billions and striking levels of repression in Egypt, presents perhaps the most daunting challenge for Islamist movements across the region. But this, too, will fail.
The lesson of the Arab Spring isn’t that Islamist parties are inimical to democracy, but that democracy, or even a semblance of it, is impossible without them.