Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Can the Islamists truly be democratic? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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All of a sudden, many Arab and Western writers have volunteered to testify that Islamist political movements can be democratic, and deserve an opportunity to govern. The examples cited include well-known parties such as Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, which is the official party of the Muslim Brotherhood, the al-Nahda Party in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, as well as the Justice and Development Party in Morocco.

Most of these writers have stressed the argument that Islamist groups have not been given the opportunity to participate in politics, and that the Arab Spring is an occasion to test their popularity and commitment to the democratic path. Of course, granting such groups the right to participate is acceptable – this is a right that is given to everybody, not just the Islamists – but as for the claims that they are democratic, and that they have never been given a chance [to rule]…these are two lies. There is the example of Sudan, where the National Islamic Front, led by [Hassan] al-Turabi, participated in the 1986 elections. The Islamists won 51 seats in parliament, which means they were the third largest party, after the national and federal parties. Although they did not dispute the elections, which were free and fair, the Islamists plotted and organized a coup two years later. They seized power in 1989, in cooperation with General Omar al-Bashir, who is still ruling the country today after he has destroyed its natural resources and waged a number of internal wars.

The Algerian experience was somewhat different. The military regime that ruled the country from behind the scenes was compelled to organize elections after seven years of turmoil and protests, in which the Islamists – and others – were very active. The military cancelled these legislative elections in 1991 [after the first round] when it looked like the Islamists would emerge victorious. However, here we must note that the moderate leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front, such as Abassi Madani, were suffering from the rising popularity of young extremist leaders such as Ali Belhadj, who was the most popular leader in the movement. Ali Belhadj, publicly in front of his followers, announced his rejection of democracy, saying: “No democracy and no constitution … only the words of Allah and the Prophet”. The Islamic extremists attacked cinemas and markets, and thus the military seized the opportunity and declared a state of martial law.

A third example of Islamic participation in politics can be seen in Palestine, where the Palestinian Authority approved the participation of Hamas in the elections, in exchange for its commitment to democracy and respect for the agreements signed with Israel. Hamas won in 2006, winning 76 seats out of 132, and was granted the presidency of the government. However, Hamas then went on to seize all public services and expel the Palestinian Authority from Gaza in a bloody battle.

Let us not forget the actions of Hezbollah, which on one hand participates in democratic activity via elections, but on the other hand imposes its will through the use of force and arms. There are also examples of the Islamists exploiting democracy to impose their own agendas, as happened in Kuwait, with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, and the Shiites. They banned certain books, concerts and intellectual activities under their ideological intimidation.

I am not against the participation of Islamist parties in politics, as long as they are prepared to respect the rules of democracy, but this is something that has not happened in the past, not even once! We have to realize that the very nature of ideological parties and Islamist political groups, intellectually and tactically, means that they deems other parties to be unacceptable, no matter how much they talk about tolerance and their adaptation to democratic thinking.

I think that the Turkish experience is the best example for Arab countries that genuinely want to give an opportunity for all popular parties to participate in politics, especially the Islamist groups. The army can serve as the guarantor, tasked with protecting those freedoms and rights that are always the subject of dispute. The Islamists do not differ widely from patriots, [Arab] nationalist, and Baathists, with regards to foreign policy, but they have an exclusionary stance towards women and the followers of other religions and sects, in addition to their views on the freedom of expression and other personal rights.