Can we have Arab Democracy without the Islamists?

This month’s lecture was delivered by Neil Hicks on Wednesday, September 27th, 2006, at the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID). This event is available for viewing on the internet at this link

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Can we have Arab Democracy without the Islamists?

Summary, by Lauren Torbett

CSID President Dr. Radwan Masmoudi opened the panel by commenting on the current discourse of Arab democracy and the role of Islamists in the region. He described this discourse as a vicious circle in which Arab regimes use the Islamist movements to justify the lack of democracy, while the lack of democracy strengthens Islamist movements and radicals.
Neil Hicks addressed the question in the title of the panel by responding that we cannot have democracy without the Islamists. They are an important political force in the region, so it is inevitable that they will play a role in democratic politics. Western countries see this as a problem because they are fearful of Islamists gaining power, and Arab regimes stoke these fears because it is in their interest to do so.
Next Hicks discussed the problem of illiberal, authoritarian tendencies within some Islamist parties. These parties do not always promote democratic principles and the international human rights, specifically regarding the rights of religious minorities and women. He clarified that this is not exclusively a problem of Arab and Islamic countries; this is generally a problem in transitional democracies around the world. Elections are not enough to guarantee democracy, since populism can easily be exploited by demagogues. We must differentiate between democratic processes and measurable human rights outcomes, since protection of human rights is not guaranteed by elections. He argued that a democracy that does not result in more rights and freedoms is a false democracy that gives this system of government a bad name.
Therefore, we should use internal and external safeguards to hold governments accountable to international human rights standards. Internal safeguards include a free press, strong state institutions like an independent judiciary, and civil society groups. External safeguards include regional and international organizations; for example, the European Union accession process in
has led to some increased rights and freedoms in the country. Hicks emphasized the role of regional mechanisms in promoting democracy and human rights, such as the European Court of Human Rights and the African Union. He argued that the Arab world needs a similar regional mechanism, since the Arab League has not performed well in this regard. Western countries should focus more on promoting regional initiatives which would have more credibility in the Arab world.
Amr Hamzawy started his remarks by suggesting that we reframe the debate on Arab democracy. The major challenge to democracy in the Arab world is not the Islamists; rather it is the autocratic, authoritarian ruling elites. He recently returned from a trip to
, and he said that the irregularities he observed in the presidential election emphasized the challenge of ruling elites.
According to Hamzawy, there are three main ways in which ruling elites obstruct democratization:
1. The interdependence between ruling elites and state institutions, where the ruling party has a monopoly over the state.
2. The role of the state security apparatus and its connection with the regime.
3. The lack of a culture of democracy, which is an outcome of authoritarian rule.
Next he discussed the Islamist movements in the region and identified three patterns:
1. Where Islamists participate legally in politics in
Morocco, Jordan, Yemen & Kuwait

2. Where Islamists participate in different ways when they are banned or repressed in
Egypt & Algeria.
3. Exceptional cases where Islamists have dual identities as resistance movements and political movements in
Lebanon, Palestine.
He argued that there was a clear shift in the region after the recent war in
Lebanon with the re-emergence of the resistance narrative. Whereas in 2004 and 2005, the debate focused on domestic politics and democratization, now in 2006 the debate is focused on regional politics and a narrative of resistance. This shift makes it more difficult for Western actors to reach out to Islamists. Furthermore, the United States lost any credibility that it had on democracy when it supported Israel in the Lebanon war. Because of these trends, Hamzawy does not foresee major democratic changes in the near future.

About Neal Hicks: Neil Hicks is Director of the Human Rights Defenders Program at Human Rights First, in New York, where he leads the efforts of the organization to advance the right to promote and protect human rights by supporting the work of human rights activists in several countries through research, advocacy and collaborative activities of various kinds. In recent years, the program has focused on the theme of the impact of counterterrorism measures on the work of human rights defenders, emphasizing in particular the situation of defenders in Russia and in South-East Asia. Between 1985-91 he served as a researcher and executive assistant in the Middle East Research Department of Amnesty International in London. Mr. Hicks was educated at the University of Durham , School of Oriental Studies , the American University in Cairo and the Refugee Studies Programme, Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford University . In 2000 2001 Mr. Hicks was a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington D.C. Mr. Hicks recent work has focused on challenges facing the development of independent non-governmental human rights organizations in the Middle East and on attitudes of political Islamic movements towards human rights. 

About Amr Hamzawy: Amr Hamzawy is a Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, and a noted Egyptian political scientist who previously taught at Cairo University and the Free University of Berlin. Mr. Hamzawy has a deep knowledge of Middle East politics and specific expertise on European efforts toward political reform in  the region. His research interests include the changing dynamics of political participation in the Arab world, including the role of Islamist opposition groups, with specific attention both to Egypt and the Gulf countries. Mr. Hamzawy’s studies at Cairo University focused on political reform and democratization in the Arab world, civil society, Islamism, and the cultural impacts of globalization processes. He received his Ph.D. from the Free University of Berlin, where he worked at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

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Radwan A. Masmoudi and Amr Hamzawy, Washington Post