One of the first comments we heard from the Obama administration in the early stages of Egypt’s 2011 revolution was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remark, “the Egyptian government is stable,” referring to the Mubarak regime. Of course, this is a stark contradiction to the democratic and human rights principles that the US espouses. It also contradicts the expressed objective to promote democracy in the region, as stated in the US National Security Strategy (NSS). Since then, we have seen regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and major political reforms in Morocco, Jordan, and some of the GCC states. One of the outcomes of all of these events and changes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2011 has been the electoral empowerment of various Islamist parties. Now, the editorial and news pages of global newspapers are brimming with alarmist messages about the Islamists coming to power in the MENA. And, those of us in the field of MENA Studies are hearing earfuls of complaints and “I told you so’s,” because of the Islamist tsunami.
I respond to these complaints with these observations and explications:
- This is the price of democracy, and democracy has various components: the electoral, civil / human rights, and some argue the civic duty component (i.e., citizens have the obligation to participate in the political process).
- Open, fair, and free elections should translate into allowing any party, however unpalatable, to run for political office.
- These countries in the MENA region have never seen democracy, which means that they will respectively undergo their own evolutionary processes, just like we did in US history. The MENA countries are starting from square one in this regard. American democracy took a long time to reach the maturity we have today. Let’s not forget that American democracy began with slavery, a brutal civil war, racial segregation, a women’s suffrage movement in the 20th century, and a very bloody and painful Civil Rights Movement. For the MENA region, I am dubbing the process, “Evolution after Revolution.” And, evolution after revolution takes a very long time.
- If anyone doubts the compatibility of Islam with democracy, consider the approximately 14% of Muslims in the 1.3 billion total population of India, the world’s largest democracy. This core Indian Muslim population has accepted and embraced secular democracy since day one of India’s independence from British colonial rule, the creation of Pakistan notwithstanding. We often forget this point. I am quick to remind people, pointing to India on the map. Of course, India’s post-colonial history has its own complexities and communal problems; no one denies that. But, it’s still evidence that Muslims in India, in whatever nuanced manner, find Islam and democracy compatible. Turkey is another example that has been repeatedly cited as a template for the 2011 Arab uprising.
This is not to say that some of the developments in the region don’t trouble me. The rise of the Salafists in Egypt, in particular, bothers me to no end. If Egypt veers in the direction of a Saudi-like theocracy, then I will indeed be biting my nails with anxiety. However, even then, it will be up to the Egyptian people to redirect the polity towards a flourishing democracy. The burden is on the Egyptian citizens. The same goes for all the other countries in the MENA region. Of course, these will be long, hard struggles for freedoms and rights. Let’s go back to US history and remind ourselves that we also have gone through difficult struggles to bring our democracy to maturity, and even now, it is far from perfect. No one should expect absolute perfection. But, everyone should aspire to it nonetheless, keeping the eye on the prize: democracy that encompasses all of the components – free, fair, and open elections, freedoms and rights, and civic participation.
Two major dichotomous arguments are circulating about this issue today. One is the recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report that calls on Western governments to, basically, suck it up and accept Islamist parties coming to power in the region, as this is what democracy embodies, and it is a better outcome than the status quo autocratic dictators in power for decades who have violated human rights for so long.
The other argument is that the Islamists have hijacked the “Arab Spring” fruits of the secularists / modernists / liberals’ labor. Some say this hijacking threatens the rights and freedoms of women and religious minorities, and in fact, thousands of Coptic Christians have preemptively left Egypt already.
Today’s Haaretz has an article about the former argument, citing the HRW report:
“Western democracies should overcome their aversion to Islamist groups that enjoy popular support in North Africa and the Middle East and encourage them to respect basic rights, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Sunday.
HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said in the group’s annual report that the past year’s Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings across the region have shown it is vital for the West to end its policy of backing ‘an array of Arab autocrats’ in exchange for supporting Western interests.
The West should also be more consistent in supporting pro-democracy forces in the Arab world and elsewhere, he said in HRW’s 690-page report on human rights abuses worldwide.
‘The international community must … come to terms with political Islam when it represents a majority preference,’ he said. ‘Islamist parties are genuinely popular in much of the Arab world, in part because many Arabs have come to see political Islam as the antithesis of autocratic rule.’
‘Wherever Islam-inspired governments emerge, the international community should focus on encouraging, and if need be pressuring, them to respect basic rights – just as the Christian-labeled parties and governments of Europe are expected to do,’ he said in the introduction to the report.
He added that the international community ‘should adopt a more principled approach to the region than in the past. That would involve, foremost, clearly siding with democratic reformers even at the expense of abandoning autocratic friends.’”
The counter-argument, which actually does not completely dismiss the former argument, is presented in today’s Al Arabiya News by Raghida Dergham, saying –
“Mistaken are those who demand that power be handed over to the Islamists in the Arab region of change, even on the grounds that they have been brought to power by a democratic process that must be honored, and that there is no choice but to submit to the de facto situation until the Islamists are tested in power. This is because democracy has been abortive as a result of excluding women and the youths from decision-making, and there are dangerous indications that the personal freedoms of Arab women and religious minorities are being undermined in the age of the Islamist monopoly of power. The youths of the Arab Awakening launched the revolution of change, but the ballot boxes brought victory for the Islamist movements. While they had toppled their regimes jointly in 2011, they parted ways in 2012 battle over the fateful choice between the modern state and the Islamic state.” (my emphasis)
I close with Raghida’s last paragraph, which, I think, sums up this discourse very eloquently, and leaves you, the reader, to contemplate how the “necessity of challenging monopoly” applies to your own political system. The checks and balances in a democracy are not just a civic responsibility, but are also imperative for upholding all of the components of democracy simultaneously. Consider Raghida’s words –
“The change coming from the Arab Awakening is going through a frightening phase that is causing much frustration, and yet there is something in the air preventing a downward spiral into pessimism – something that awakens frustration into the necessity of challenging monopoly.”
NOTE: Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.