Time for an Islamist-Liberal Alliance

It is time for Arab liberal reformers and peaceful Islamist movements to join forces to foster the change in this region that neither of them has been able to bring about on its own . . . Rami Khouri writes

When we ask why in the Arab world today real political change, economic reform and less dominance of society by the security systems do not happen in any sustained manner, the answer is usually because domestic groups have not joined forces to foster change. The three main domestic Arab forces for change in recent decades are the mainstream Islamist parties (such as Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizbullah); many small civil society organizations and liberal activists; and, pockets of incumbent officials and prominent businessmen and women.

By working separately they have had limited impact. The obvious conclusion is that it is time for Arab liberal reformers and peaceful Islamist movements to join forces to foster the change in this region that neither of them has been able to bring about on its own.

The mainstream Islamists are the only groups that have been able to generate the mass numbers and popular credibility that can translate into political power. That power is negated or blocked, though, because the Islamists are feared, suspected, opposed, outlawed, or thwarted by everyone else in the world, and I mean everyone else — their own governments and security services, their liberal activists fellow citizens, their business elites, foreign governments, and non-politicized fellow Muslims.

Consequently, the Arab Islamists have succumbed to several options that reduce their domestic political impact. They accept limits on their representation in parliament, often through voluntary limits on the number of seats they contest. They go underground and migrate abroad, limiting their roles in their own countries. A few give up and adopt violence, and make trouble with bombs and assassinations, thus marginalizing themselves among their people and foreign governments. Islamists tend to focus their organizational prowess on grassroots service activities, and also articulate the grievances of ordinary citizens and discontented elites alike. Islamists are a force, but not a power.

Arab liberals and reform-minded activists, on the other hand, are mostly free to operate publicly as they wish, because their views on democracy, human rights and pluralism tend to appeal to a rather narrow audience. They represent no major populist threat to established regimes. They are well funded mostly by foreign donors and actively cooperate with colleagues abroad. But their impact is limited, mainly because the mass audience is responding to the Islamists in the first instance, or to tribal and ethnic leaders, rather than to a liberal appeal. The rhetoric and institutions of Arab liberal reformers also have been freely adopted and co-opted by the Arab security state, which speaks routinely of reform, human rights and democracy at its own pace.

The means to a breakthrough in the iron wall of Arab autocracy and the harsh rule of the colonels could well be for Islamists and liberal reformers to join forces. Their core values mesh together very naturally: democracy, equality, rule of law, peaceful political participation, majority rule, protection of minority rights, pluralism, clean elections, pragmatism, accountability, anti-corruption, and legitimacy. They differ somewhat on issues such as religious-secular divides, relations with Israel, national vs. religious identity, working with the United States and other Western powers, and some aspects of the public role of women.

The agreements substantially outweigh the disagreements, and can usher in a compelling common political meeting ground that could challenge existing dictatorships and mobilize majorities of citizens in the service of building more decent societies with credible, responsive governance systems. An Islamist-liberal alliance would require compromises by both sides from those who have already shown themselves willing to make such compromises. Witness the evolution of Hizbullah’s governance politics since 1990, the flexibility of democracy activists in Egypt since 2004, and the cooperation between Islamists and secular liberals in the recent elections in Gaza, or in the Hizbullah-Aoun accord in Lebanon. Incumbency achieved peacefully will require eventual accommodation by Islamists and secular liberals alike (as Turkey confirms). It makes sense to make the compromises early and start reaping the rewards.

By joining forces around a common charter of dignified nationalism, genuine democracy, social integrity, and reciprocity in relations with other states — all acceptable core values to both camps — an Islamist-secular liberal coalition would achieve critical goals that the component groups have not been able to achieve separately. Their initial gain would be to boost their collective legitimacy at home and abroad — the Islamists becoming less threatening, and the secular liberals becoming more credible. Their combined clout and respectability could then force the adoption of more representative electoral laws, win majorities in parliaments, and influence or define state policies. Politics is about making good deals. This one seems to be as good as it gets.

Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune.

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