Preaching Democracy

Branding Islamists as quintessentially undemocratic and secular liberals as the new heroes of the Arab world is patronising colonial thinking,writes Amr Hamzawi

I recently attended the fourth assembly of the World Movement for Democracy (WMD), held in Istanbul 2-5 April. WMD was formed in 1998 on the initiative of the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED). It aims to assist non-governmental activists and groups that seek to introduce democracy in non-Western societies and protect these individuals and groups from persecution by despotic regimes. The Istanbul gathering was held under the slogan “Advancing Democracy: Justice, Pluralism and Participation,” and brought together nearly 600 civil activists, politicians and academics.

The crisis of democratic transformation in Arab societies topped the agenda, the debate being mostly of an ideological type, bordering on preaching. In his opening speech, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke at length about the slow pace of democratisation in Arab countries, offering explanations ranging from the role of religion in public life to the inadequacy of constitutional guarantees and the lack of political participation. While speaking in detail about Iraq and Darfur, Erdogan made no reference to the continued struggle between his own ruling Islamist Party and the Turkish military over the role of religion in politics, nor did he mention the political representation of Kurds in his country. He managed, however, to suggest that the Turkish model was best suited for Arab countries.

From then on, advice came flooding from every direction. A Bangladeshi minister suggested that Arabs should emulate his country’s democratisation process. A former Malaysian prime minister spoke of the need to confront Arab despotic elites. Eastern and Western Europeans, with barely any knowledge of the region, offered high-flown comments that were time-wasting just as they were depressing to Arab participants.

Only two types of Arab participants seemed to enjoy the conference. Civil society representatives, who have gotten used to attending these conferences and listening politely to inane advice, were one. The other was the Islamists, who see the arrogance of others as validating their own tendency for isolationism and for rejecting all forms of foreign interference. The Istanbul gathering offered pointless debate, and little else.

The US organisers had their own point of view, one that is worthy of consideration. NED President Carl Gershman spoke about the challenge despotic regimes and Islamic radicalism pose to liberal democracy. Despotism, he said, was a global phenomenon involving Arabs as well as Chinese, Russians and Venezuelans. But radical Islam was all ours, especially Al-Qaeda and Zarqawi, according to Gershman.

For Gershman, Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt are all Islamic radicals. All three, he suggested, use the climate of political openness to usurp power and institute new Islamist despotic regimes. In portraying the conflict between radical Islam and democracy, Gershman used strong ideological terms, describing the conflict as a war of ideals that would decide the future of all humanity. In prophetic tones, Gershman told the gathering that salvation is in the hands of secular civil society groups in Arab countries. Only such groups can deliver us from the insidious hold of despotic regimes and Islamic radicals, he claimed.

The ideological approach to the Arab crisis of democracy, as I see it, is founded on a plethora of value judgements and conceptual obfuscation that offer little insight into what needs to be done. You cannot bundle together all Islamist movements and brand them as undemocratic; not when many of them have made clear their commitment to the democratic rules of the political game. It is a fact that the cultural and societal evolvement of Arab societies since the 1970s has led to the rise of the Islamists as the one component of opposition capable of challenging the ruling regimes. In fact, the secular view of civil society groups as the only saviour of the Arab world is rather exclusive, for it belittles the role of religious organisations that have become so integral to the social makeup of Arab countries.

Secular groups are too fragile to bear full responsibility for democratic transformation. This is a fact that many wish to overlook. Non-governmental bodies, rights groups and gender activists do not have what it takes to confront tyrannical ruling regimes. In fact, they are being constantly repressed and silenced. Secular groups are elitist in their composition and lacking popular support. They lack the power that opposition parties and popular movements have. Arab societies are not that different in that sense from those of East Europe, Latin America and Asia. One is to expect popular movements to press for democracy, with civil society groups playing a supporting role. Civil society groups can offer guidance and help build consensus, and that’s all we should be asking them to do.

It is harmful, both for Arab societies and civil society organisations, to portray all religious currents as radical and anti-democratic. This approach is unhelpful, except to those civil society organisations that depend on US and European aid for their existence — and there are too many of those unfortunately.

The holier-than-thou approach to Arab countries seeking democracy is counter-productive. Arab societies have only recently shed the weight of old-fashioned ideology and do not need a new one. It is wrong to use secular groups as a counterpoint to the Islamists. In societies that are struggling to rid themselves of despotism, the last thing one wants to do is regard one component of society as the saviour, while ignoring the potential contribution of all others. We need a dose of reality, not a plethora of imaginary heroes. If you want to promote democracy, then stand by secular parties, liberal as well as leftist, so that the latter may improve their programmes, gain public support, and become capable of challenging Islamists. But do you really want to promote democracy? I wonder.

* The writer is an Egyptian researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC.