The Arab Experience

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, international pressure mounted for political reform in the Middle East, particularly the Arab world. For its part, the Bush administration elevated democracy promotion in the Middle East to a key strategic priority. The administration’s policy sprung from the belief that strong linkages exist between the Middle East’s long history of autocratic rule and the emergence of a transnational terrorist movement with its roots in many of those same countries. Numerous independent analyses likewise have suggested that the Middle East’s dysfunctional, autocratic political systems are helping to breed Islamist extremism.

An Islamist “Tsunami”

Yet, despite the critical importance assigned to political opening in the Middle East, a number of factors, including ongoing turmoil in Iraq and competing priorities of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), have intervened to complicate U.S. democracy promotion efforts. In particular, various Islamist parties’ strong showings in recent elections have added a new layer of complexity to U.S. democracy promotion efforts in the Arab world. Indeed, across the region, Islamist parties and organizations boast strong grassroots support. These groups represent a broad spectrum of views, ranging from moderate parties that have renounced violence to well-established terrorist organizations.

Hamas’ resounding victory in the January 25, 2006 Palestinian elections, winning 74 out of 132 seats, is perhaps the most dramatic example of the power Islamists wield at the ballot box. Deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe, the party’s rise to power has significantly complicated U.S. policy toward the Palestinian Authority as well as efforts to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Similar concerns characterize Hizballah’s role in Lebanon. The terrorist organization won 14 of 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament in the June 2005 elections, the first independent vote in thirty years following the withdrawal of Syrian troops. While Hizballah’s parliamentary presence is far outstripped by an anti-Syrian opposition bloc, the organization still holds significant sway over Lebanese politics and is the only political party to maintain an armed militia.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) won 88 of 454 seats during the 2005 parliamentary elections, winning 61 percent of the seats it contested. The MB now holds the largest opposition bloc in parliament, with 20 percent of the seats. (Secular opposition parties won only 3.5 percent of the seats, while independents fared only slightly better with 6.5 percent.) Similarly, the Jordanian Islamic Action Front (IAF), a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, has the largest presence of any political party in the Jordanian parliament, with 17 out of 110 seats. The IAF is anticipated to gain even more power via this year’s municipal elections and in the 2007 parliamentary elections.

In North Africa, the Party for Justice and Development (PJD) stands as the most powerful grassroots opposition force in Morocco. It currently holds 42 of 325 seats in parliament, the third largest bloc. Assuming the PJD is allowed to compete freely in the upcoming 2007 parliamentary elections, the party is expected to win even more seats, if not an outright majority.2

Finally, in the Gulf, Islamist parties have also made important inroads in parliamentary politics. In Iraq, Islamist parties hold a majority (by some estimates, 65 percent) of seats following the December elections, while Islamist parties and organizations maintain appreciable influence in the Kuwaiti, Bahraini, and Yemeni parliaments.

Not surprisingly, therefore, U. S. policy makers are increasingly forced to address the key question of whether to engage Islamist parties and what role they envision for these parties in America’s democracy promotion strategy. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a successful policy of democracy promotion in the Arab world that does not address specifically the role of Islamist parties. To date, however, U.S. policy largely has steered clear of addressing directly the role of Islamist parties. The Islamist “tsunami” has even led some to question whether the U.S. should engage in any sort of democracy promotion in the region.

Engaging Islamists

Once a taboo topic, relegated to closed door meetings and “eyes only” policy memos, the role of Islamist parties is now openly debated in foreign policy circles, where some believe the integration of moderate Islamists holds the key to successful democratic opening. A task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations addressed the issue as part of a longer report on Arab democracy. The Task Force recommended that Washington support the political participation of moderate Islamists who are “committed to abide by the rules and norms of the democratic process.”

Before debating the merits and drawbacks of engaging Islamists in the Arab world, it is useful to consider an earlier case: the aborted Algerian elections of December 1991. At that time, Algeria’s political opening was unparalleled in the Arab world. A legal Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) stood on the verge of gaining a commanding majority of the national parliament through free and fair elections. Instead, the army intervened, canceling the elections and banning the FIS. Moderates in the movement were discredited and quickly eclipsed by radicals who took up arms in a brutal insurgency that was to last more than a decade and cost more than 100,000 lives. No one knows what would have happened if the election results had been upheld, but in many ways the tensions in Algeria’s drama at that time encapsulate the very questions we are considering today.

In the most simplified terms, these tensions reduce to the question of whether Islamists who renounce violence and profess a willingness to play by the rules are genuine or whether allowing them to compete freely in the political arena will empower illiberal, antidemocratic forces. Does the adage, “One man, one vote, one time”—a phrase first made popular at the outset of the Algerian elections—apply?

Moderate Islamists throughout the region increasingly say the right things with respect to the need for democratic reforms and what those reforms should look like. For example, among its many demands, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s March 2004 Platform for Reform calls for universal suffrage, presidential term limits, and the right for both women and men to serve in parliament. The Brotherhood also calls for the restoration of basic freedoms and underscores its future vision of Egypt as a “democratic and constitutional parliamentary republic within the realm of Islamic principles.” It also has demanded the abolition of Egypt’s repressive Emergency Laws, the lifting of restrictions on political parties and associations, the strengthening of parliament and the creation of an independent judiciary.

Nonetheless, key questions arise as to whether the Muslim Brotherhood is genuine in its professed commitment to democratic ideals. Can they be trusted, or are these pronouncements merely tactical appeasements designed to pave their path to power? Are the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist parties like it, capable of a genuine evolution in their thinking? Ultimately, an assessment of whether such parties can evolve into democratic entities, and if so, whether their evolution can be facilitated by others, will be central to the broader question of what role moderate Islamist parties can play in democratic politics.

When trying to assess the potential for evolution within Islamist parties, it is essential to bear in mind that Islamist parties, like other political actors, are not static entities, but dynamic forces capable of change. Some Western analyses of these groups assume that Islamist groups are rigid, averse to pragmatism, and unwilling to moderate their positions on questions such as the imposition of shari’a law. However two key characteristics of Islamist parties must be considered. First, Islamist parties are not monolithic, but diverse and heterogeneous, covering a broad spectrum from moderate to violent. These groups’ positions on the application of shari’a, both in terms of the scope and timing of its role in defining societal norms, vary significantly. Second, these parties appear capable of change from within. They are first and foremost, political actors. Numerous examples attest to the ability of these groups to change and adapt to their circumstances. Indeed, their potential for evolution has been compared by some to that of the European Christian Democrats.

Factors for Success

Certainly, there are no guarantees in politics, and it is difficult to make a definitive judgment on the role of Islamist parties during political openings. Nonetheless, the presence of four key factors can help to assuage concerns that Islamist parties will exploit political openings to overturn nascent democracies.

• Institution-building. A well-established system of checks and balances undergirded by strong, transparent institutions that are accountable to the public and founded on the rule of law stands as the most important guarantee against Islamist forces coming to power and implementing antidemocratic rule. In this regard, one of the key lessons learned from the Algerian experience is that elections should be among the final steps of political opening, not the first. Building strong institutions fortified by constitutional amendments that distribute power equitably and insure checks on executive power will be crucial to any effort at political reform.

• Establishing clear “red lines.” Vali Nasr, from the Naval Postgraduate School, who addressed this conference last year, has underscored the importance of clearly established “red lines” that serve as democratic restraints (on both Islamists as well as ruling regimes) on how far various political actors can push their agendas.3 In this context, “red lines” should not be confused with the implementation of measures that are inherently anti-democratic, but rather clearly defined restraints on power applied equally to regimes and opposition movements. Nasr emphasized that reversals in reform have taken place in countries where no clear “red lines” have been established. Such “red lines” can be explicit, laid down in constitutions or national pacts, or they can be implicit. In an example of the latter, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) opted to limit voluntarily the number of seats it contested in the 2003 elections. Its actions suggest the party’s respect for an implicit “red line” drawn by the monarchy in the wake of the May 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca.

• Formation of secular-Islamist reform alliances. Alliance building between secular and Islamist opposition groups has begun to take root in some Arab countries, including Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, and Egypt. In Yemen, for example, the “Joint Meeting of Opposition Parties” functions as an important forum for ongoing collaboration between the Islamist Islah Party and the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), an ardently secular party. Cooperation and dialogue between these two parties has yielded important gains in process-related areas, such as improving electoral laws. More broadly, two key non-government Arab reform initiatives, the March 2004 Beirut Summit and the June 2004 Doha Declaration, featured close cooperation by Islamist and secular reform advocates. While it is still too early to determine the impact of these alliances, coalition-building necessarily requires real compromise which could in turn lead to a genuine evolution in thinking. At a minimum, secular and opposition groups joining forces to pressure for greater political opening may accelerate the momentum for change and provide an effective counter-weight to ruling regimes.

• Opening political space to allow for genuine multi-party competition. An open political arena, characterized by fierce competition for votes among parties, will further contribute to greater pragmatism on the part of moderate Islamist parties as they seek to win votes, gain influence, and garner popular appeal. The imperatives of political participation amidst real competition from viable secular parties with genuine popular appeal can be an important force for moderation among Islamist parties. Of course, it is essential that independent, secular parties be strengthened as an effective counterbalance.

Implications for U.S. Policy

Finally, it is important to consider a number of key implications for U.S. policy:

• Engage directly with moderate Islamists.

Given the Islamists’ strong popular appeal, the U.S. can no longer afford to call for democratic change in the region while ignoring one of its most potent political forces. Indeed, to be sustained and successful, reform efforts in the region must be inclusive, reaching out to all elements of society willing to “play by the rules.” The national political party institutes (the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI)) have worked consistently and quietly, behind the scenes to engage moderate Islamists across the Arab world. Their efforts have laid important groundwork by cementing relationships with key Islamist parties. The U.S. must continue and deepen its efforts to reach out to moderate Islamist politicians and activists, both in the region as well as on exchanges to the United States. In particular, exchanges should target both Islamist politicians, as well as representatives from the religious establishments of various Arab countries.

• Enhanced political party training for both secular and moderate Islamist parties.

While NDI and IRI already have political party strengthening programs in place, intensified efforts must be made to train and bolster secular opposition parties as an effective counterbalance to powerful Islamist opposition parties. To date, secular opposition parties have had little success in attracting substantial grassroots support. These parties often are riven by internal divisions, and suffer from the same aging leadership, stagnation and lack of transparency that characterize ruling governments in the region. At the same time, moderate Islamist parties should not be excluded from such training opportunities. As mentioned above, it is critical that these actors be included in reform efforts and vested with a stake in democratic reform.

• Support Islamist-secularist dialogues on reform. In addition to accelerating and deepening political party training, greater funding should be allocated to support dialogue and other means of “bridging” reformers from Islamist and secular spheres. Fostering alliances for reform that bring secular and Islamist reformers together stands as a logical follow-on to working separately with Islamist and secular opposition parties. As well, moderate Islamists should also be included in multilateral for a such as the Democracy Assistance Dialogue which is part of the G-8’s Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative.

• Greater emphasis on projects and programs that strengthen institutions and support

the rule of law. The push for free elections must be accompanied by commensurate support for institution building, particularly programs that aim to establish independent judiciaries, strengthen parliaments, and promote the rule of the law. Alongside institution building, it is essential for the United States to pressure Arab governments that maintain Emergency Laws (e.g., Egypt, Algeria, Syria) to lift these restrictions. Such restrictions, at times in place for decades, substantially undercut the rule of law and allow ruling regimes to operate with impunity. The lifting of Emergency Laws is particularly important in countries that are planning to hold elections, in order to insure sufficient freedoms to competing political parties, the press, and key elements of civil society.

• De-conflict contradictions between democracy promotion policies and the Global War on Terror. U.S. policy toward political Islam is often caught between the conflicting demands of democracy promotion and the global war on terror. Regional regimes are often sent mixed messages. Security and intelligence cooperation from Arab governments is encouraged as part of the GWOT. Yet, crackdowns on suspected terrorists often result in human rights violations and an increase in repression. U.S. strategy must balance the needs of nurturing civil society and greater political opening while guarding against extremism.

To conclude, engaging moderate Islamists and supporting their inclusion in the political arena is critical to the region’s long-term stability. Islamist parties willing to “play by the rules,” renounce violence and assert support for democratic principles should be allowed to participate in politics. They must be given a stake and feel vested in the system. Such participation, in concert with strong institutions, clearly-identified “red lines,” healthy political competition and incentives for alliance building, could well be the beginning of a virtuous circle, where participation breeds greater moderation. The alternative— repression of moderate Islamist forces or their isolation—could well provoke the opposite, a vicious cycle of radicalization and violence.