US should engage Islamists to push democracy in Arab world, says expert

US should engage Islamists to push democracy in Arab world, says expert

DOHA: The US should engage with Islamist groups in the Arab world if it is serious about promoting democracy in the region, says Shadi Hamid, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center and an expert on the Middle East.

Hamid, an American of Egyptian origin, said important issues in the Arab world such as human rights and democracy have been sidelined, as the Obama administration has put all the focus on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

“George Bush had given democracy a bad name. But it does not mean that democracy is a bad idea. The Obama administration is busy pushing the peace process ahead. He wants support from the Arab regimes to find a solution to the Israeli -Palestinian conflict. So he is not talking about promoting human rights and democracy in the region,” said Hamid, during an informal chat with the media yesterday.

“Many believe that all the problems in the Arab world will be resolved once there is a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I don’t agree with this view. Dictatorial regimes will still be in power in the region and the fundamental issues will remain unresolved,” he added. Democratic reforms in the Arab world would come to fruition only with support of the US and in this process the Americans will eventually have to engage with the Islamists, he felt.

“Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will play an important role in the political process in the region. The Arabs have accepted this fact and the US will also have to change its view sooner or later,” he said.

He said experiences in Turkey and Iraq had proved that the US need not have to be scared about Islamists. Both countries have democratically elected governments, led by Islamists and they have been keeping good relations with the US. The US administration is more cautious about engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood because it fears that the latter would cancel the Camp David Accord if it comes to power in Egypt.

“There are some people in the West who believe that no engagement with the Islamists would be possible since they represent a totally different world view. However, they are only a minority. Such perceptions will change if there is a real effort to develop positive relations between the two sides,” said Hamid.

Asked why democracy still remains elusive in the Arab world, he said: “Several opinion polls have revealed that people in the Arab world want freedom and democracy. However, they think they are not capable of changing the status quo. The Arabs don’t have a vision for the future. The opposition is the Arab countries are so divided. It is high time they bury their ideological differences and come together on a common agenda.”