Islamists and the Ballot Box

Islamists and the Ballot Box

Dr Saad Eddin Ibrahim published an article on May 24 in the International Herald Tribune (and in the New York Times, two days earlier). It provides a good insight about what he has been repeatedly telling high-level politicians, academics and media in the world’s main capitals for several months now.

Given Dr Ibrahim’s stature, one must take quite seriously what he says. And what he says is indeed a source of deep concerns; for Dr Ibrahim appears to be on a crusade to bring Islamists to power in the Arab world.

Several points mentioned in his article could be argued, or even refuted; but we will restrict ourselves to a few key issues.


Dr Ibrahim presents a number of recent cases of Islamists gaining access to power which he claims to be ‘success’ stories. Apart from omitting any reference to the miserable record of ruling Islamists around the world, each of the cases he mentions must be examined keeping in mind its own background, and without hastened generalizations. For example, Turkey is a constitutionally secular country where the separation of religion and state has been established for eight decades. The army and large societal segments (as well as the EU!) are watching carefully the policies of the Justice and Development party. In Jordan and Morocco, ‘enlightened’ kings (both educated in the West), who enjoy popularity while maintaining a strong grip on their countries, are carefully guiding a process where Islamic parties are allowed a role. The case of Grand Ayatullah al-Sistani, the leader of the long-oppressed shi’a in Iraq, cooperating with the Americans is still part of an unfolding story.

To claim that Islamists are becoming lovers of democratic values akin to the Christian Democrats in Europe, grossly misrepresents the picture.

The Europeans Democrats, who operate within well established systems separating state and Church, stand for nothing more than some very basic Christian values. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, has a public and unwavering goal of enforcing the rule of Islamic shari’a. Indeed the supreme guide of the group has bluntly said in a carefully worded interview with Le Monde (April 26) that the only references he respects are the Koran and the Sunnah (the tradition attributed to the Prophet Mohamed). So why should anybody volunteer to ascribe to the Islamists things they never said they believed in?

Besides, in reading the article we seem to come across a bizarre concept of democracy, reducing it to the ‘ballot box’ irrespective of anything else. Professor Ibrahim certainly knows better than that.

Among the conditions considered to allow the Islamists to be part of the game, Dr Ibrahim mentions that they must have “strict respect for constitutions,” without ever defining the foundations of these constitutions. Islamists typically start by reshaping the constitution around the shari’a – as happened in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan. Barbaric systems were set up in full respect of the constitution.

In the case of Egypt (a country with a large non-Muslim minority); why would be replacing the current autocratic regime by a totalitarian theocracy an advancement of democracy? Have we forgotten history lessons about totalitarian regimes coming to power through the ballot box?

Finally: only AFTER establishing systems built on values of liberty and absolute equality; where religion and state are kept STRICYTLY separate; and where the International Human Rights Declarations are unconditionally accepted, could a role of Islamic parties – that is to say those advocating basic Islamic values – be potentially positive, without risking large blood baths. 

When it comes to futures of entire populations, playing with fire should not be an option, no matter under what pretext or for whatever objectives.


An abridged version of this comment was published by the International Herald Tribune, on May 26, in response to Dr Ibrahim’s article.