Fighting on Two Fronts: Secular Parties in the Arab World

Without strong secular parties, political competition in the Arab world could be reduced to a dangerous head-on confrontation between Islamist parties and the incumbent governments.  Yet secular parties—a broad term referring to organizations that do not embrace a political platform inspired by religious ideals—are clearly facing a crisis in the Arab world as they struggle for influence, relevance, and in some cases, survival.

In a new Carnegie Paper, Fighting on Two Fronts: Secular Parties in the Arab World, Carnegie Endowment Senior Associates Marina Ottaway and Amr Hamzawy explore the uncertain future of secular parties across the Arab world by examining their role in Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, and Kuwait.  The authors argue that secular parties need to reform their vision, message, and organization to be able to affect the political system in a meaningful way.

Voters see little reason to support secular parties that offer neither the patronage of government parties, nor the vision and social services of Islamist movements.  As a result, they have become second-tier actors who cannot compete successfully for voter support. Their leaders, in turn, feel victimized by authoritarian governments that allow little legal space for free political activity and believe they cannot compete with the grassroots mobilization by the Islamist movements.

The authors argue that secular parties can re-energize and attract disenchanted voters by clearly distinguishing themselves from Islamist movements and the government. Low political participation in Arab countries indicates that there are new constituencies that secular parties could attract, and the ability of the ruling government to provide patronage has declined. 

The crisis of secular parties is emerging as a major obstacle to democratic reform in the Arab world. “The weakness of secular parties is leading to a curious blurring of the lines between government and opposition, with many secular parties looking to the government for protection against the rise of Islamists, even as they try to curb the power of those governments.”

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About the Author
Marina Ottaway is a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program and director of the Carnegie Middle East Program.

Amr Hamzawy, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, is a noted Egyptian political scientist who previously taught at Cairo University and the Free University of Berlin.