Egypt held its first presidential election this week amid troubling and still-unanswered questions about whether the "Arab Spring" will bring freedom or a new tyranny.
The debate has raged practically from the start of the protests that eventually toppled Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime. Some observers, particularly conservatives who favor a strong global role for the United States, have cautioned that while the revolution may have been led by modern young activists, the new Egypt is likely to be dominated by Islamists who champion the oppressive rule of religious law. Meanwhile, Arab Spring enthusiasts, such as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, warn against scaremongering and stereotyping.
But the past year's developments have not been heartening. In December's parliamentary elections, the Islamists did better than expected. The party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood won nearly 45 percent of the seats and the second-largest winner, with 25 percent, was the Islamist Bloc representing the fundamentalist Salafi movement. No liberal party broke the 10 percent threshold.
Optimists pinned new hopes on the presidential election, particularly when two moderate candidates emerged as the front-runners in recent weeks. One, Aboul Fotouh, is a former Muslim Brotherhood leader described as a liberal Islamist. The other, Amr Moussa, is the secular-oriented former chief of the Arab League.
But there are many caveats. For one, Fotouh and Moussa emerged as favorites after the three previous front-runners -- two of them hard-core Islamists -- were thrown off the ballot for mostly technical reasons. What's more, Fotouh's liberalism is questionable; his view of democracy focuses on the will of the majority rather than individual rights, and his coalition includes the ultraorthodox Salafists.
Besides, exit polls as Egyptians cast their votes indicated that the top vote-getter may ultimately be Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. There's been a great deal of debate in the past year about how radical the Brotherhood really is. Yet even some of the group's defenders who argue that its progressive elements have been underestimated -- such as Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, an author for Foreign Affairs magazine -- concede that at this point, we do not yet know if the Muslim Brotherhood will accept a political and legal system that protects freedom of conscience as well as the rights of women and non-Muslims.
There are those on the American right who caricature nearly all Muslims as dangerous fanatics and Islam itself as inherently oppressive, intolerant and violent. In fact, history knows many varieties of Islamic cultures. But there is no denying that at the moment, an extremist, anti-modern strain of fundamentalism is alarmingly popular in many Muslim societies. In Egypt, polls show, nearly 80 percent of Muslims support capital punishment for adultery or conversion to another faith. (By contrast, only about 5 percent in Lebanon and Turkey agree.) Under these circumstances, a popular revolution is highly likely to backfire against those who favor freedom.
This is not to say that we should rush to declare post-revolutionary Egypt the enemy. Certainly, the United States should make its best effort to establish a functional, pragmatic relationship with the new government. Rejecting such effort as naive appeasement -- as some conservative commentators have done -- is reckless. But a pragmatic relationship requires a clear-headed view of the other side. To dismiss concerns about rising Islamism as merely alarmist is no less irresponsible than alarmism itself.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.