Al-Arbiya: Can the Islamists truly be democratic?
(Lara Logan's terrified face, minutes before Islamists act as expected, the face of Arab spring, IMHO)
All of a sudden, many Arab and Western writers volunteered to testify that the political Islam movements are democratic and deserve to get an opportunity to rule. These suggestions cover some well-known parties such as Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, which is the official party of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, as well as the al-Adala Party in Morocco.
Most of those writers have mainly stressed the argument that Islamist groups have not been given the opportunity to work in politics and that the Arab Spring is an occasion to test their popularity and commitment to the democratic path. Of course, talking about giving them the right to participate is acceptable – it is a right that is given to everybody, not just the Islamists – but claiming that they are democratic, and that they did not get their chance, is fallacious.
For example, in Sudan, the Islamic Front, led by al-Turabi, participated in the elections in 1986; the Islamists won 51 seats in the parliament, which means they ranked third, after the national and the federal parties. Although they did not distrust the elections, which were free and fair, they plotted and organized a coup two years later, and then seized the power in cooperation with General Omar al-Bashir, who is still ruling the country after destroying its resources and waging wars in it.
Algeria has lived a different experience, one in which the military regime that ruled from behind the curtain had to organize elections after seven years of turmoil and protests, where Islamists and many others were active. The military cancelled the elections in 1991 when the possible victory of Islamists loomed in the horizon, but we must note as well that the moderate leaders of the Islamic Salvation front, such as Abassi Madani, were suffering from the extremist young leaders such as Ali Belhajj, who had the dominant popularity in the movement and was challenging openly in front of his followers, declaring a rejection of democracy: “No democracy and no Constitution ... but just Allah said and the Prophet said”. The extremists attacked cinemas and markets, so the militants seized the opportunity and declared martial law.
The third experience was in Palestine, where the authority approved the participation of Hamas in the elections in exchange for its commitment to democracy and the respect of the agreement signed with Israel. It won in 2006, with 76 seats out of 132, and was given the presidency of the government, but Hamas seized all the public services and expelled the Palestinian Authority from Gaza in a bloody battle.
Let us not forget the actions of Hezbollah, which is involved in the democratic work through elections from one side and imposing commands by the force of its arms from another side.
I am not against the involvement of Islamist parties in politics as long as they are prepared to respect the rules democracy, which has not happened, not even once, as I mentioned above. We have to realize that the nature of “ideologicaled” parties and political Islamic groups, intellectually and tactically, consider other parties as unacceptable, no matter how much they talked about tolerance and adaptation to democratic thinking.
I think that the Turkish experience is the best example to give for Arab countries that really want to give an opportunity for all popular parties to participate, especially the Islamist groups. The army can be the guarantor, with the importance of protecting the freedoms and rights that are always in dispute; the Islamists do not differ from the patriotic, nationalists and Baathists regarding the foreign policies issue, but they have an exclusionary stance against women and other religions and sects’ followers, in addition to the right of expression and personal freedoms, which do not agree with their belief.
Saying that the Islamist movements did not have their chance in governance, and that they are democratic, is not true. I presented examples of Islamist parties, such as the Islamic Front that ruled in the Sudan and Hamas in Gaza. There is also in the region an Islamic republic that is in absolute control in Iran, and Hezbollah is represented in the government in Lebanon and many other … All of them had good opportunities, through the elections such as Hamas, or by taking over, such as Khomeini and the Islamic Front in Sudan. Thus, we have actions that confirm that these “ideologicaled” movements pretended to be democratic but when they got to the verge of power they showed that they were just another dictatorial party that rejects the other and wants absolute domination.
By what I have mentioned above, I do not mean that Islamist parties should not be allowed to benefit from the Arab spring, though they hampered it and did not originally take part in the revolutions. In fact, I admit that there is not a real democracy in the region without the Islamist parties, because they represent a force that cannot be ignored and their involvement in the political process achieves two important goals: the first is momentary, which is ensuring stability, because the Islamist parties are capable of sabotage if excluded; the second is a long-term goal, where, through the practice, they can evolve their general political discourse and behavior and become decent parties that truly believe in democracy, not opportunism.
The problem today is the confusion between the dictatorial reality of Islamist parties and what they should be in the future, namely, democratic. Since the toppling of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, many people have been promote a theory that it is the time of the Islamists, who have been deprived of the opportunity to rule. And above all this, they claim that the Islamists’ image has been marred by the Arabs and the West to prevent them from entering political participation. The Islamist party leaders hastened to embellish their image for the Western countries, so they have issued statements alleging that they would not prohibit wearing bikinis or prosecute wine drinkers and would accept women in the general mandate and a Christian as president.
Of course, these speeches are public relations acts, and could only be believed by someone ignorant about the region or by the logic of the religious parties. If the claim of freedom of faith is true, it expresses the opinion of few leaders only, because the majority of leaders and cadres of these groups consider cleansing the society as their first duty, and it would not be long before they topple the tolerant leaders.
Arab societies are going through a difficult development that may lead to more dictatorships under the name of democracy, such as what happened in Iran, which revolted against the individual dictatorship of the shah, so that the dictatorship of the religious group took control. Therefore, we cannot settle for reading the intentions and believing the propaganda. If these societies, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Morocco, truly want a democratic approach and want to give an opportunity to all political forces, including the Islamist and nationalist forces, then we should expect from them that they build a state, with constitutions that protect individual rights, and armies that believe that their duty is not to rule but to protect the democratic institutions and practices.
We can see in Egypt, and from the first round of elections there, how the society – military, politicians and rebels – has failed in the application of fair competition rules. Although it was forbidden for competing parties to use religion and mosques in electoral purposes, they all have used it, so they gathered millions of voters through thousands of mosques and media to stimulate people’s fear of liberals, Copts and Christians. As a result, the Islamists got about 65 percentof the votes! So where is the democracy?
(The writer is the General Manager of Al Arabiya. The article was published in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Nov. 7, 2011 and was translated from Arabic by Sarah Sfeir)