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Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman

Shadi Hamid
6 April 2009

In early March 2009, a group of more than 100 experts and scholars from the United States and the Muslim world issued an open letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to make support for democracy in the middle east a top priority. The letter - convened by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and the Project on Middle East Democracy - has drawn significant media and public attention, including an editorial in the Washington Post which said "[the letter's] depth and breadth vividly shows that the Obama administration could find many allies for progressive change in the Middle East - if only it looks beyond the rulers' palaces" (see "Democracy's Appeal: Will President Obama listen to liberal activists in the Muslim world?", Washington Post, 14 March 2009).

Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy and a Hewlett Fellow at Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law

This article is a response to Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

This is indeed the message we hope to convey: that the region is ready - and has long been ready - for substantive democratic change, and that a diverse coalition of middle-eastern actors (including moderate Islamists, liberals, and leftists) hopes that the American president will not forget their struggle against autocracy.

The attention to the letter has included a substantial article in openDemocracy by Tarek Osman, part of the debate on the subject of democracy-support co-hosted by openDemocracy and International IDEA. As one of the lead drafters and a co-convenor of the open letter, I am grateful that Osman has taken the time to carefully consider its contents (see "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall", 17 March 2009). At the same time, I wanted to respond to some of the concerns and criticisms he raises.

The reality

Tarek Osman begins by noting that the letter refers at various points to the "Arab world", the "Middle East", and the "Muslim world." He is right, of course, that these are not the same. All, however, are relevant to our call.

Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

openDemocracy, "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009) - a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy(CSID)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "The inspectors of democracy" (13 March 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

Christopher Hobson & Milja Kurki, "Democracy and democracy-support: a new era" (20 March 2009)

The Arab world, as the only region of the world devoid of any real democracies, is where the United States must focus its democracy-promotion efforts. This is why we mentioned the cases of Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia - American allies that receive various levels of economic and political support but have failed to make any real progress on political reform. At the same time, the broader middle east and Muslim world are more than relevant for the lessons they impart. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and the Prosperous Justice Party - Islamist parties significantly influenced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood - are "normal" political actors, whose electoral participation is taken for granted. Turkey, meanwhile, is a close American ally governed by the Islamist-leaning AKP. The Turkish model is one that Islamists throughout the region are watching closely.

It is worth dwelling on the so-called "Islamist dilemma" which the letter (as well as Osman's response) identifies as a major stumbling-block to supporting Arab democracy: "For too long, American policy in the Middle East has been paralyzed by fear of Islamist parties coming to power." We want democracy but fear its outcomes. There is a tendency among policy-makers to see Islamists as violent or otherwise threatening. In reality, the vast majority of Islamist groups fulfil two important conditions: non-violence and a commitment to the democratic process. They represent the largest opposition forces throughout the region. If democracy will ever come to be in the Arab world, Islamist groups will figure prominently in that future. To put it more simply, there cannot be democracy in the Arab world without Islamists. That is something the United States will need to come to terms with.

But Osman is sceptical that there can ever be a rapprochement between America and Islamists, even those like the Muslim Brotherhood that are nonviolent. The United States, he rightly points out, is not so concerned with whether the Brotherhood is sufficiently democratic or whether it accepts the rights of women and minorities. The source of enmity, rather, is a clash of interests. "Pax Americana", Osman argues, "aims to ‘stabilise the region'", and this, of course, includes guaranteeing Israel's security. Meanwhile, "Islam's opposition is not time-bound but theological: it sees ‘settling' as a sin, and long-term jihad...is divinely ordained."

Osman is right that Israel is a major sticking-point, but he paints both America and Islamists in simplistic terms: as unitary, intransigent actors. Between and within Islamist movements, an important debate is taking place regarding the Jewish state. It may be true that individual Islamists harbour a religiously motivated hatred of Israel, but it is also true that beliefs are not always an accurate predictor of behaviour.

Over the last several years, I have spent nearly eighteen months in Jordan and Egypt, interviewing and getting to know most of the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders in the two countries. There are a significant number of prominent Islamist leaders who are increasingly open to peaceful resolutions of the conflict. For instance, Abdel Menem abul Futouh, a member of the Egyptian Brotherhood's guidance bureau, told me in an interview that he is willing to accept a two-state solution, with "full sovereignty for a Palestinian state and full sovereignty for an Israeli state." Ruheil Gharaibeh, deputy secretary-general of the Jordan's Islamic Action Front, has also expressed support for a two-state solution.

Even as an organisation, the Egyptian Brotherhood, in its 2004 reform initiative, affirms its "respect of international laws and treaties", which is the code Islamists use for saying they will accept the Camp David agreement of 1978 without actually saying they will accept it. Meanwhile, even the most anti-Israel of all Islamist organisations, Hamas, has expressed a willingness to join a unity government with Fatah that will almost certainly engage in talks with Israel.

The change

As for Osman's more general claim that America seeks "stability" in the middle east and that Islamist groups can never fit in that vision, the fact that two of America's closest regional allies - Turkey and Iraq - are governed by parties with a distinct Islamist orientation should handily dispel that notion. Iraq's vice-president, it should be recalled, is Tariq al-Hashimi of the Iraqi Islamic Party, founded in 1960 as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. In May 2006, the US state department brought the secretary-general of Morocco's (Islamist) Party of Justice & Development (PJD), Saad Eddin Othmani, for a visit to Washington, DC. In other words, there are exceptions to the rule.

There is an important change underway. In much of the middle east, Islamist groups are aware that gaining power within their countries will remain unlikely, if not impossible, without US encouragement or, at the very least, neutrality. The Egyptian Brotherhood, the most influential of Islamist movements, is increasingly aware of this; a fact reflected in its launch of an internal initiative in 2006 titled "Re-Introducing the Brotherhood to the West". This listed misconceptions from both sides and suggested steps to address them. Since then, the group has started an official English-language website, published articles in western publications, and established informal links with American officials, researchers, and activists. In an unprecedented event, two prominent Brotherhood moderates, Essam el-Erian and Ibrahim el-Houdaiby, penned op-eds in The Forward, America's leading Jewish newspaper. Islamist groups are devoting more attention and resources to engaging western audiences.

It would be wise for the United States to carefully consider such overtures. After all, autocracy cannot be made permanent. Eventually, the authoritarian regimes of the region will cease to be. An uncertain "something else" will replace them. Western nations would be wise to prepare themselves for the change to come. It is better to have leverage with Islamist parties before they come to power, not afterwards when it is too late.

The open letter to President Obama acknowledges that the US has for decades supported repressive dictatorships in the name of stability. It should by now be clear that stability cannot be bought on the cheap. Tarek Osman writes that "the reward of bad ideas is failed policies. Any project that now puts democracy in the Arab or Muslim world at its heart will need to be mindful of what has gone before." He couldn't be more right. What has come before has often been unqualified support for repressive autocracies, and this approach has given us today's middle east, a region that has failed, and continues to fail, on almost every relevant political indicator. The United States has allied itself with Arab regimes at the expense of Arab publics, at great cost and consequence. Mindful of the failures of the past, it is time - finally - to commit, not just in word but in deed, to middle-east democracy.

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