VIEW: Regime change in the Arab world

Excluding the Islamists is a recipe for disaster, while inclusion can breed moderation. The necessities of politics are bound to dilute ideological purity. The challenge is not how to destroy Islamic movements, but how to turn them away from revolutionary to reformist politics

Four years into a disastrous military adventure in Iraq and with the global war on terror against ill-defined forces of darkness still inconclusive, the collapse of America’s grand strategy has exposed how ill-conceived was its simplistic recipe for democratic change in the Arab world.

The paradox is that America might be winning the war for Arab democracy, even if by default, but cannot reap the benefits, simply because the emerging pattern of Islamic pluralistic politics does not coincide with the West’s brand of secular liberal democracy. The shift of the Arab world’s mainstream fundamentalist movements to democratic politics is tantamount to a repudiation of the jihadist project and of Al Qaeda’s apocalyptic strategies. The failure of jihadism is paving the way for a potentially promising restructuring of Islamic politics, but the West either doesn’t recognise the changes or is hostile to them.

The rise of Islamists throughout the region as the sole power capable of exploiting the opportunities of free elections — Hamas’ victory in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood’s spectacular gains in the 2005 Egyptian elections are but the most noteworthy — the ascendancy to regional hegemony of Shiite Iran, and the sense among Arab rulers that the embattled Bush administration is running out of steam have all combined to stall the promising drive to political reform in the region.

The US retreated from its democratic designs once it realised that Arab democracy is not being identified with the liberal-secular opposition, a political force that practically does not exist in the Arab world, but with Islamic radicals that are seeking to repudiate America’s policies and the cause of reconciliation with Israel. That this should be so has of course much to do with America’s traditional policy of sustaining the Arab world’s pro-Western dictators.

But the notion that the genie of democratisation can now be squeezed back into the bottle is a self-serving fantasy. The move of mainstream Islamists — Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, Hamas in Palestine, the Renaissance Party in Tunisia, or the Party of Justice and Development in Morocco — away from jihadism to political participation started well before America’s democracy promotion campaign, and is not an attempt to please the West. It is a genuine response to the needs and demands of their supporters.

Extinguishing Arab democracy, as President Mubarak of Egypt is now trying to do through his recent ban on political parties that are based on religion, will bring neither stability nor peace to the Middle East. It will only exacerbate the rage of the masses at the West’s hypocrisy, now expressed in a form of democratic charlatanry. The stability of those Arab regimes that are not sustained by a democratic consensus is bound to be fragile and misleading. Just as Islamic democracy is the natural reaction to Arab secular autocracy and to the West’s collaboration with it, so will the destruction of political Islam usher in even more extreme options with movements like Hamas going back to social work and terror, and with Al Qaeda making inroads into Islamic societies.

Both the West and the Arab rulers need to realise that the tense equation between the incumbent regimes and political Islam is not necessarily a zero-sum game. This has been learned the hard way by Algerian President Bouteflika who, through his Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation of February 2006, brought an end to a long and bloody civil war, the origins of which lay in the violent cancellation by the military of the Islamist Front’s (FIS) electoral victory in 1991.

It is in this context that the historic compromise between the religious (Hamas) and the secular (Fatah) to form a national unity government for Palestine might have established a new paradigm for the future of regime change in the Arab world. The concept of national unity governments might, indeed, be the formula that makes it possible to hold together the political families in the Arab world. King Muhammad VI of Morocco has already indicated that the Crown would consider a “historic compromise” with the Islamists should they, as predicted, win the elections in June 2007. Such compromises may be the only way to stem the slide to civil war, and possibly also co-opt the Islamists into a settlement with Israel and a rapprochement to the West.

Engaging political Islam will need to be the central part of any successful strategy for the Middle East. Instead of sticking to doomsday prophecies or to categorical perspectives that prevent an understanding of the complex fabric of Islamic movements, the West needs to keep the pressure on the incumbent regimes to stop circumventing political reform.

As Algeria in the 1990s showed, exclusion of the Islamists is a recipe for disaster, while inclusion can breed moderation. The practical necessities of politics are bound to dilute ideological purity. The Mecca agreement that brought forth the unity government in Palestine will inevitably temper Hamas’ radicalism, just as the regime’s avoidance in Jordan of an “Egyptian solution” to the Islamist challenge allowed the Islamic Action Front to contain within the movement many who would have been otherwise drawn into the jihadist orbit.

The challenge is not how to destroy Islamic movements, but how to turn them away from revolutionary to reformist politics by granting them legitimate political space. —DT-PS

Shlomo Ben-Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy