Bringing the ’untouchables’ in from the cold

Bringing the ’untouchables’ in from the cold

If the war in Gaza pushed the Palestinian and Israeli governments farther apart, there is at least one thing that continues to bind them together and differentiate them from their Middle Eastern and North African neighbours: both are democratically elected. Hamas is the legitimate, democratically elected government of Palestine even if it is far from being the moderate political movement Europe would like to see.

But Hamas is a specific case that has little in common with the genuinely moderate, non-violent Islamist movements that are emerging across the region. For the EU, however, the case of Hamas has become emblematic of its own difficulty in understanding and engaging with Islamist political movements in the Middle East and North Africa.

The EU”s long-standing approach to its Middle Eastern and North African neighbours has been based on the primacy of stability, implemented through unwavering co-operation with the region”s authoritarian rulers in order to safeguard European trade and security interests. But it seems that this approach has been changing slowly in recent years. Increasingly aware that backing incumbent rulers will not secure European security interests in the long run, behind closed doors diplomats from across the EU are pushing for engagement with moderate Islamist actors. The change in heart amongst Europeans is also based on the belief that moderate, non-violent Islamist movements could be a critical force for political reform in a region where the EU has had little success in encouraging democratic change.

But there is also a more pragmatic reason why the EU should begin to open the door to dialogue and co-operation with moderate Islamist political movements in the Middle East and North Africa. There is growing frustration amongst moderate Islamist political movements at their inability to influence the political realities in their home countries. Now it is dawning on European policymakers that there is the prospect of re-radicalisation in the Middle East and North Africa and that moderate Islamist movements should therefore no longer be ignored.

Baby steps along an unclear path

Over the past six months, numerous European diplomats and analysts have indicated that there is a growing consensus that the time to act is now. The risks and fears are great.

Sceptics question moderate Islamists” true democratic commitment and ascribe a hidden totalitarian agenda to them. This view has been strengthened by the choice made by the Hamas-led government in Gaza not to renounce violence. But most of the truly moderate Islamist movements in the region have never been given the chance to prove their commitment to democracy via a meaningful participation in government.

Other critics argue that EU engagement would bestow attention and legitimacy on groups who hardly deserve it. Yet the reality is that the status quo cannot be upheld and the presidency of Barack Obama in the US offers Europe the chance for a step-change in its approach to the Middle East and North Africa.

The problems for EU governments in taking this forward are both political and practical. Politically, there is a fear that any steps towards engagement would be seen as a change of position. Furthermore, engagement with moderate Islamism, the first real opposition that regimes in the Middle East and North Africa have faced in decades, does not sit comfortably with the EU”s strategic imperative of providing stabilising support for the current governments of a region with massive importance to Europe. As a result, EU diplomats are taking baby steps, engaging with Islamic political movements on an informal case-by-case basis across North Africa and the Middle East.

In countries such as Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait and Bahrain, Islamist movements such as Morocco”s Justice and Development Party and Jordan”s Islamic Action Front are legal, recognised political actors with parliamentary representation. European government figures regularly meet them as one among many legal political actors in the country. Indeed, European diplomats are in contact, however sporadically, with illegal but non-violent groups like Morocco”s Justice and Charity movement. But these examples represent the high-point of current EU engagement. In Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is formally banned but enjoys parliamentary representation via independent candidates, both EU diplomats and Islamist politicians themselves are regularly given a hard time by the regime when trying to meet and liaise with each other. As a result, European links with some groups, for example in Algeria, have been seen as not being worthwhile. In Egypt, regular contact is maintained above all with the Muslim Brotherhood”s members of parliament, a policy that is seen as less risky than engaging with party activists.

The EU is especially tentative in more openly repressive countries such as Tunisia and Syria, where Islamist parties are outlawed. While the EU has been praised for its pro-active engagement with the Syrian regime, beyond sporadic encounters with exiled Islamists on European soil, there has been little if any attempt to engage with Syria”s two most important and illegal groups, an-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Arguably, in those countries where reform is most needed the EU is having the least impact.

The risk of antagonising regimes such as in Syria or Egypt encapsulates the fundamental dilemma of the new European policy of engagement. There seems to be a difficult contradiction between short-term security and trade concerns (Syria is a pivotal player in Iraq, Egypt is an indispensable partner for EU strategic interests in the region) and the desire of EU member states to foster and encourage long-term democratic development and sustainable security in the countries within its near neighbourhood.

Engage Hamas and Hezbollah?

The elephants in the corner here are Hamas and Hezbollah. Both groups hold power, in Palestine and Lebanon respectively. Both have been involved in dialogue with EU member-state diplomats, either openly or unofficially via proxies. Both retain an armed wing and have become destabilising influences in the region. But while being largely ineffectual in both cases, the EU should not take these experiences as an argument not to talk to them in the future, or to refrain from engaging with the moderate democratic and non-violent Islamist movements in other parts of the region.

Hamas and Hezbollah represent but two controversial, radical examples of a highly nuanced and less than coherent trend of Islamist political activism. Far from abandoning the idea of engagement, Europe should strive to create examples of constructive engagement that the US can acknowledge and follow. There is evidence that in recent years, moderate Islamist movements in the Middle East and North Africa have become more open towards the idea of engaging with the West. This window should be taken while its there, especially as the frustrating inability of elected members of parliament to meaningfully influence policymaking in an authoritarian context means that at some point Islamist politicians might rethink their strategy and turn their backs on parliaments.

*Kristina Kausch is a Middle East researcher at FRIDE, the Foundation for International Relations and Dialogue, in Madrid. Her new report on engaging with moderate Islam is available online at