- August 19, 2008
- 14 minutes read
The uses of democracy
Although many Islamist movements and parties have resolved their theological dilemma with respect to democracy and democratic practices, these parties and movements exhibit vast discrepancies between them in their understanding and internal application of democratic standards. As important as a commitment to democracy has become as a means to optimise their social and political gains, some Islamists still doubt the value of democracy as the most effective means for managing internal differences and for enhancing their organisational efficacy, and continue to subscribe to such values as blind allegiance and obedience, unquestioning reverence for the leadership and for a religious-based organisational hierarchy.
Arab Islamist movements and parties fall into two primary categories in this regard. The first comprises those with a virtually ideal internal climate, especially when compared to some Arab liberal and leftist parties. Democracy in this group extends beyond decision-making formalities to include complete provisions for the application of the principles of responsibility, accountability and transparency. In the second category, democracy appears to be regarded not so much for its moral value as for its instrumentality in steering the internal interplay in a particular direction. This pragmatic attitude creates the impression that there exist certain inviolable boundaries to democracy in these groups and that their leaders are averse to allowing democratic principles and values to take root among the rank and file.
In the first category we find
The Bahraini Al-Wefaq Islamic Society also falls into the first category. Founded in 2001, the society”s internal democracy has long set it apart from most other Islamist movements, especially Shia ones. The party”s charter provides for a flexible and balanced distribution of powers between its general congress and consultative council.
The Islamist movements in
In this instance, democracy appears to serve more as an instrument of punishment, not only against a particular faction within the group but also against society in general and the relative weight of the movement in that society. The fallout from the electoral defeat propelled Hamam Said to the leadership of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. The new supreme guide is notoriously conservative and rigid, especially in comparison to this predecessor, Salem Al-Fallahat, and through his election Muslim Brotherhood members delivered the implicit message to the regime that they intended to take the tough line now that the regime demonstrated that the flexibility of the doves only made them easier prey. However, the Muslim Brotherhood”s internal crisis continued to snowball. Soon the doves and moderates boycotted several meetings of the executive bureau in protest against its procrastination of an “internal” hearing with the secretary-general of the Islamic Action Front, Zaki Bin Arshid, whom they charge with autocratic behaviour and indifference to the views of the executive bureau. Such “retaliatory” democracy, if we can call it that, does little credit to the movement and certainly harms its image and its relationship with the state and society.
To think that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is internally democratic is patently absurd, not only because of the lack of any checks and balances in its hierarchical structures but also because of the absence of a democratic culture in its ranks. While the organisation”s charter provides for elections to its various committees and leadership posts, the principles of integrity, transparency, accountability and performance remain alien to a prevailing culture and organisational approach founded upon unquestioning loyalty and obedience. To be fair, the democratic stagnation within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood cannot be divorced from two chief factors. The first is the total absence of democratic practice in all political institutions in
The fact is that even the Brotherhood”s most crucial and strategic decisions regarding internal matters or its relationship with the regime lack any real legitimacy, whether due to the absence of a “democratic” quorum or to the lack of a mechanism for polling members” opinions. A recent example of this is to be found in the so-called elections to fill some free seats in the organisation”s executive bureau. Apparently, no one was clear about the election process and many doubted its fairness and transparency. In the end, when the supreme guide announced the results there was no way to ascertain how these results were obtained. Meanwhile, the broader Brotherhood membership was no better informed on these elections than the general public.
In the final analysis, whether democracy is practised as a means to enhance the political and organisational performance of the group, as in the first category above, or as little more than a dispute settling mechanism, as is the case in the second category, democracy has become an essential instrument for moderate Islamist movements. Moreover, Islamist movements and parties such as those mentioned above appear to fare considerably better on democracy than many Arab secularist and liberal parties, which claim to advocate democracy but totally fail to practice it internally.
* The writer is an expert on political Islam and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution,