Washington begins to learn to live with Islamist parties

It is past time for Washington to learn that shunning Islamist parties just won't work any more.

'I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people," Henry Kissinger reportedly told US officials in 1970. The "irresponsibility" to which the then-National Security Adviser had referred was the Chilean election of the socialist Salvador Allende as president that year. The US may have claimed the mantle of "democracy" during the Cold War, but it also claimed a right of veto when democracy's verdict was unpalatable. Mr Kissinger's comments became the rationale for US involvement in the 1973 coup that killed Allende and subjected Chile to 17 years of military dictatorship.

Voters in countries newly liberated by the Arab rebellion should be relieved that Washington has lost its appetite for toppling elected governments - because the US government of 1973 might not have been ready to accept the "irresponsibility" of Arab electorates, either.

Tunisia's election and Libya's festivities to mark the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime sounded alarms in Washington among those on the hawkish right who believe the US is still locked in an existential struggle, with political Islam having replaced communism as its nemesis.

Most US media used the palliative "moderate" when referring to the Ennahda party that triumphed in Tunisia's election, but it was nonetheless clear that an Islamist party was the big winner in the first democratic election won by this year's Arab rebellion. And the leader of Libya's rebel leadership structure, the National Transitional Council, also found himself reaching for the "moderate" label on Monday after his promise, during Saturday's liberation ceremony, to build a constitution and society based on Islam. As crowds chanted "Allahu Akbar", it became clear that the Libyan rebellion may have been far more Islamist in character than its Nato backers would care to admit.

If Islamists prevailed in the polls in more secular and sophisticated Tunisia, it would be unwise to bet against some version of political Islam emerging as the key national political force in a Libya still riven by tribal and regional rivalries. And the party to beat in any future Egyptian election will be the Muslim Brotherhood.

Arab democracy is clearly a major windfall for the Islamist parties long suppressed by secular authoritarian regimes. But while fear of Islamists - and denial of their popularity - runs deep in Washington, the US actually has some positive experiences dealing with governments rooted in political Islam.

Shiite Islamist parties have led Iraq's coalition governments since the first post-Saddam election in 2005, and have maintained, for the most part, a pragmatic cooperative relationship with the US. So, too, the ruling AK Party in Turkey, which is a Nato member in Afghanistan and has agreed to host missile-defence components guarding against any Iranian threat, as well as a fierce critic of US policy on Iran's nuclear programme and on Israel. Sure, neither Turkey nor Iraq align themselves with US regional strategy, but both are nonetheless cooperative partners of Washington on a number of issues. If backing the US on Israel and Iran was the yardstick for measuring outcomes, Arab democracy would be a losing proposition for Washington. But it's long past time for Washington to reconcile with the reality that Islamist parties are an intractable reality in Arab democracy - and, perhaps, to understand the appeal of those parties among voters.

It's not simply because of the hostility towards the US stirred up by its invasion of Iraq and its support for Israel; nor is it simply a case of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi and Saddam having given secularism a bad name. While the ousted dictatorships had all adopted variants on secular nationalist ideology, the secular liberal parties tend to be based in a relatively well-off segment of the urban middle class, and have struggled to connect with the language and priority concerns of their countries' impoverished majorities. By contrast, the message of the Islamists, and their pious and uncorrupted image, has always resonated with the poor, where they have boosted their support over decades by providing social services - health care, welfare and educational support - substituting for a decrepit state.

Many of the voters of Egypt and Tunisia know and trust the Islamists as a result of their activities under years of repression, to an extent that liberal parties are unlikely to match at least ahead of the first post-dictatorship elections.

The prospects for secular democracy in post-rebellion Arab societies may, paradoxically, rest on the extent to which the Islamists are willing to embrace it. "Don't be afraid of secularism," Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Egypt's Islamists during a recent visit to Cairo, explaining that "secularism is not about being an enemy of religion. It is about the state maintaining the same distance from all religions and acting as a custodian of their beliefs". That's a powerful message coming from a leader many Islamists take as a role model, although the annoyance of many others at the Turkish prime minister's remarks highlights the fact that the new democratic space has opened healthy debate and divisions in the Islamist camp.

The Islamists are new to electoral politics, of course, and in Tunisia - as well as Egypt and Libya - they have professed a desire to share power and forge a governing consensus with other social forces rather than strive for a monopoly of power. They are probably aware, besides anything else, that no government is likely to be able to deliver on the economic expectations of the electorate any time soon.

So there's plenty of room for building pragmatic relationships with the emerging Islamists in the new Arab democracies, and the Kissinger idea of "protecting" an electorate from its own inclinations is a non-starter in this day and age. Engaging with the Islamists, for better or worse, is now the only game in town.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @Tony Karon

Published: October 27, 2011 04:00 AM


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