What Moderate Islamists Expect from Obama?

What Moderate Islamists Expect from Obama?

How will president-elect Barack Obama deal with moderate Islamists in the Middle East? That is the question that is preoccupying Islamists and Arab authoritarian regimes alike. Despite President Bush’s tragic mistakes in the region, he has played an important role in the Islamists’ rise in many Arab countries, such as Morocco, Bahrain, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan, before backtracking on the promotion of democracy after Hamas came to power in January 2006.

Some Arab regimes in the region fear that Obama may opt for defending the agenda of freedoms and democracy in the region adopted by the Bush administration, which means a threat to their influence.

I believe that moderate Islamists want three key points from President-elect Obama. First, not to ignore the issue of backing democracy in the region, put pressure on Arab regimes for greater freedoms and push ahead with political reform. The democracy they want is not just a means to blackmail the Arab regimes as the Bush administration did, but rather a strategic interest for the United States.

Second, they don’t want President-elect Obama to be afraid of them or consider them a threat to US interests in the region, but rather as an important partner. Therefore, some of them demand that Obama realizes that the protection of his country’s interests will not be through the protection of authoritarian regimes, but through the protection of the reformists and facilitating their participation in the political process. Some of them argue that the current stability in the region is fake and that the region will explode socially and economically unless there is a real political change.

Third, moderate Islamists want President-elect Obama to put pressure on the Arab states to end the repression they have suffered over the past two years. President Bush gave the green light to these regimes to violate human rights and suppress political opposition as in the case with Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia.

I do not think that the Obama administration will be very interested in communicating with moderate Islamists, and this will be a grave error. Unfortunately, it seems that not a lot of researchers and politicians in Washington are interested in the issue of supporting democracy in the Middle East and have doubts about possible communication with moderate Islamists, not because of fear of offending US friendly Arab regimes, but because of uncertainty in the political discourse of moderate Islamists and the extent of their commitment to the values of democracy.

But the question the Obama administration should consider thoroughly is: What are the results of the exclusion of moderate Islamists from the political scene? Who will pay the price? It will be a mistake for the Obama administration to believe that the protection of American national security will be through tolerating the suppression of moderate Islamists. On the contrary, it could lead to growing anger among young Islamists, pushing some of them to join violent groups that seek to avenge the United States and threaten its interests. Therefore, we may witness terrible events like that of Sept. 11, 2001. Is Obama aware of this lesson?

Khalil Al-Ananiis an Egyptian expert on political Islam and democratization in the Middle East and is a senior fellow at Al-Ahram Foundation. E-mail: [email protected]