For Democratic Change, Deal with Moderate Islamists

For Democratic Change, Deal with Moderate Islamists
Amr Hamzawy

It has become common to suggest that the West should reach out to nonviolent Islamist political movements in the Arab world and integrate them into its democracy promotion efforts.

Two major factors have contributed to the apparent shift in American and European perceptions away from the stigmatization of Islamists as irrational fanatics to an operational distinction between violent and nonviolent, radical and moderate actors: First, the problematic path of Arab democratization and, second, the newly discovered pragmatism within the Islamist environment. However, both the United States and Europe have yet to articulate clear policy guidelines that structure their encounter with Islamist movements. Existing doubts about the degree of their commitment to democratic reforms and the real intentions behind their pragmatism hamper attempts to move ahead in the direction of engaging them.

The absence of viable opposition movements with sustainable popular constituencies represents a persistent dilemma of democratic transformation in the Arab world. Reforms under authoritarian regimes never spring impulsively from the noble motivations of autocratic rulers. International efforts to promote democracy in countries where the tradeoffs of undemocratic governance continue to be bearable for the ruling elites are bound to fail. Without the formation of far-reaching opposition alliances, the autocrats who are governing from Morocco to Bahrain might eventually manage to do away with current Western pressures either by inventing a “theater of democratization” based on cosmetic reforms, or by discrediting American and European calls for democracy as acts of foreign aggression against the sovereignty of Arab countries.

Western democracy-promotion policies and programs of the past several years have looked toward Arab liberals as strategic partners, anticipating that they will be able to gradually contest the dominance of authoritarian regimes and force democratic concessions.

To be sure, there is more than one good reason for the US and Europe to support liberal parties and secular NGOs across the region. Normatively and politically Arab liberals have embraced the Western political value system with its three pillars: universal citizenship, democracy and the rule of law. Their objectives are identical with Western aspirations for tolerant, pluralist Arab societies. They speak a language which is understandable and trustworthy in American and European policy and intellectual communities.

The dilemma of Arab liberals, however, is their marginalization back home. Contrary to their celebrity status in the West, in the “real world” of the Arabs liberal actors remain incapable of reaching out to large constituencies in their societies or of substantially influencing political developments. That’s why, faced with ruling elites primarily interested in preserving their power and weak liberal opposition actors, the US and European states have no choice but to try collaborating with other forces on the Arab political scene if they are serious about promoting democracy in the region.

Nonviolent Islamist movements such as the Egyptian and Jordanian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Moroccan Justice and Development Party are well rooted in the social and cultural fabric of their countries; they possess, therefore, a great potential for forging broad alliances for political transformation.

On the other side, recent changes in Arab Islamist political movements have made it easier for Western countries to engage some of them. Throughout the last decade, the mainstream of Islamist movements has been moving toward more pragmatism based on prioritizing gradual democratic reforms as the way ahead for the movements’ own political integration, and as the only viable strategy for challenging persistent authoritarianism in the Arab world. Furthermore, the new pragmatism among nonviolent Islamist movements has led them to look with relatively more openness at American and European policies in the Arab world.


But the challenge facing moderate Islamists is the continued determination of Arab regimes to contain or exclude them from political life, even in the context of a gradual reform process. The fear of the Islamists’ popularity shapes official policies toward them. In spite of their continued containment and exclusion, moderate Islamists in the last few years have not questioned their strategic choice for gradual political reform. On the contrary, they have launched different reform initiatives aiming at promoting the current momentum for change in the Arab world.

For example, on March 3 the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood announced its reform plan calling upon the government to rescind the emergency law as well as other restrictions on political activities and to embark on the road of democratization. Although the regime ignored the Brotherhood’s initiative, the significance of the proposal was that it positioned Egypt’s Islamists within the emerging reform consensus that also includes liberal opposition movements, helping bridge the Islamist-secular divide. Analogous developments can be observed in Jordan and Yemen.

Arab regimes have long secured the support, or at least the silent approval of, the US and Europe for their repressive measures toward Islamist movements by evoking the so-called Algerian syndrome – the prospect that Islamists can come to power through the ballot box. Several of the region’s autocrats still play the game of frightening the West by warning that substantial reform might lead to Islamist takeovers. In this way, they try to minimize Western pressure on their own regimes. However, Arab politics have changed a great deal since the beginning of the 1990s. Excluding nonviolent Islamists from the political sphere today weakens the chances of democratic regional transformation.

In the last few years, Arab liberals have been gradually reaching out to moderate Islamists and engaging them in campaigns calling for reforms. Secular-religious national alliances for democracy are instrumental in contesting the power of authoritarian states and articulating popular consensus over the need for political transformation. Islamists, on their side, have seized the integration opportunity and positioned themselves at the heart of growing opposition movements across the region. In Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt differences between liberals and Islamists remain relevant, but the degree of their convergence over national priorities is systematically growing. These are steps in the right direction.

Democratic opposition platforms are by far more effective with Islamist participation than without it. The United States and Europe should move forward in the same direction of engaging moderate Islamists. The cause of political transformation in the region is best served by bringing in Islamist movements and their popular constituencies.

Amr Hamzawy is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.


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