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Embracing The Brotherhood
Embracing The Brotherhood     Rami G. Khouri is editor at large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune. The moment of reckoning about the next stage of Arab political development is upon us faster than anticipated, with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt winning 88 seats out of a to
Tuesday, December 13,2005 00:00
by Rami Khouri

Embracing The Brotherhood

   
Rami G. Khouri is editor at large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune.

The moment of reckoning about the next stage of Arab political development is upon us faster than anticipated, with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt winning 88 seats out of a total of 444 in the Egyptian parliamentary elections. Many people will debate whether this is a danger, an inevitability that we have to adapt to, or a positive opportunity that could help shape the elusive historical transition from autocratic Arab security states to something more democratic and satisfying.

We should not collectively watch this unfolding process on CNN, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya television, but rather we should embrace this opening with a combination of rationality, courage, equity and vision that have been sadly lacking from modern Arab governance systems. Arab, Western and Israeli political establishments must quickly respond with policies that can transform this into a positive force and a win-win situation for all.

While small groups of radical militants exploit Islamic sentiments and iconography to carry out their murderous deeds in this and other regions, the vast majority of mainstream Islamists have started to engage the peaceful, democratic political processes that are available to them in more and more countries. Legitimate political expression and power-sharing, rather than some vague moderate religious expression of Islam, is what will finally defeat the bin Ladenist jihadi terrorists, and we must all work wisely to encourage the continued emergence of legitimate Islamist democrats.

Such groups as the MB, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islah in Yemen, and others around the region have done and will continue to do well in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and any other Arab land where they are given a chance to compete in political elections with a modicum of fairness. The most important thing about the Egyptian results is not that the Muslim Brotherhood now controls around one-fifth of parliament, or that it has more than doubled its previous best performance of holding 36 seats. It is that it won 88 seats while only contesting around one-third of all 444 seats, so as not to provoke the government and its ruling National Democratic Party. The MB candidates also did not officially run under the movement’s banner, given that it is not a legal organization or party in Egypt. Furthermore, the NDP panicked when the MB did well in the first rounds of voting, so it used thug-like tactics in later rounds, including arresting hundreds of Islamist campaign workers and putting obstacles in the way of voters with Islamist leanings.

Despite all this, the Islamists won around 50 percent of the seats they contested. This suggests that if they ran in all electoral districts and did not suffer the crude disruptions of the state’s and the ruling party’s goons and gangs, they would certainly win a plurality, and possibly a majority, in parliament. The same situation pertains in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and other lands, where Islamists who express the simmering discontent and indignities of large swaths of citizens find their political representation in "democratic" systems severely curtailed by the consequence of rigged voting, gerrymandered electoral districts, skewed electoral laws or tacit agreements that limit the number of seats the Islamists contest. Consequently, Islamists can participate in the political system, but can never accurately reflect the weight of their true constituency.

This year represents a watershed in Arab Islamist movements engaging more routinely and openly in parliamentary elections and other forms of democratic governance, such as municipal elections, activism within civil society and the mass media, and engaging politically through the rule of law and the judiciary. It is vital that the mainstream ruling elites in the Arab world and beyond respond in kind, by simultaneously engaging and challenging the Islamists in return. They should do so in order both to strengthen Islamist tendencies toward democratic politics, and to activate the test of incumbency that all aspiring governing parties must pass. Islamists who win power or earn a place in governing coalitions must show that they can deliver—to their constituencies and to all citizens—services and policies that make sense, and that respond to the citizens’ rights and needs.

Islamist movements have broadly performed well in national resistance against, say, Israeli occupation, homegrown Arab autocracy, or Western hegemonic aims. If they prove their mettle as good managers and policy-makers, they will then be validated by their own societies as legitimate governors within a democratic, constitutional context in which power is routinely contested through elections, free media, civil society and other means. Turkey is an impressive example where Islamists challenged the ruling authority for years, were routinely beaten back with strong-arm tactics, but finally prevailed democratically and have ruled, broadly, with equanimity and efficiency.

An important dimension of the Islamists entering establishment politics in the Arab world is how they will be engaged by the U.S., Israel and other Western powers. The Islamists say they will honor existing laws and treaties, including peace treaties with Israel in Egypt and Jordan, and significant aid and military ties with the U.S. It is ironic but welcomed that the MB Islamists have done well in Egypt in part because the U.S. pressured the Egyptian regime to open up the political system and allow diverse political groups to contest elections, including the presidency in a very limited fashion.

The Islamists have won a significant victory in Egypt, and it would be appropriate now for those in the U.S. and the Arab world who long fought against the concept of democratic Islamists to engage them, work with them, sometimes embrace them—but always challenge them to prove their efficacy as wielders of power in a democracy, rather than only challengers of authority in an autocracy. This might be a good time for some thoughtful, non-hysterical U.S. senators and congressmen to invite a handpicked delegation of newly elected Arab members of parliament in several countries—including a few Islamists—to visit the United States for exchanges of views and perceptions on issues of common interest, including democracy, religion in public life and the impact of American, Arab, Israeli, Turkish and Iranian foreign policies.

Who knows? Maybe they would have a good chat on why we all love freedom and democracy, why Arabs tend also to stress sovereignty, liberation, self-determination and dignity as parallel goals, and how we could work together to promote those universal aspirations. This is a historic moment, and an opportunity not to be missed to promote democracy and stability in the Arab world.
 


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