Will Islamic opposition movements seize the day?

By Amr Hamzawy and Jeffrey Christiansen

(July 30, 2009) – When it comes to democratic development in the Arab world, the ball is now squarely in the court of Islamic opposition movements. US President Barack Obama has spoken. Defying expectations that he would downplay domestic affairs and democracy promotion in favour of a more realist outlook, Obama used his platform at Cairo University to enunciate fresh policy. The United States, he stated, will respect “all law-abiding voices… even if we disagree with them” and will “welcome all elected, peaceful governments”.

Obama was targeting a specific audience: Islamic opposition movements across the Arab world that have renounced violence, accepted the political process and currently represent a popular and potential force for pluralism in the region.

Now that the United States is willing to engage them, what will it take for them to come to the table?

Islamic opposition movements need the United States more than they are ready to admit. They seek international recognition as a serious political force. And they want the United States to define its commitment to democracy in the Arab world to mean applying pressure on Arab regimes for greater political pluralism. But they will have to send Obama consistent signs of their intentions.

Their responses to Obama’s speech were hardly an example of bold outreach.

In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party said Obama’s speech was “certainly positive” but questioned US diplomacy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the Palestinian territories, Hamas initially criticised Obama for more of the same US policy but later recognised its “positive language”. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood criticised Obama for ignoring the “authoritarian regimes and corrupt systems” in the region. Most of them restated familiar criticisms.

To capture US attention, however, Islamic opposition movements need to address two core US concerns: would their positions on key international issues value stability? And would their positions on key domestic issues reflect a commitment to democratic ideals and procedures?

Internationally, the biggest concern is that Islamic movements would aim to disrupt the international system. Would they, in fact, honour their countries’ obligations under existing international agreements? Would a government controlled by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for example, abide by the terms of the Camp David agreement and maintain diplomatic relations with the Jewish state? Would the Jordanian Brotherhood respect the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel? Can Hamas commit to the Oslo framework and recognise Israel’s right to exist? There should be no doubt that failing to recognise their countries’ treaties would perpetuate the “pariah” status of these movements in the eyes of the United States.

Domestically, Islamic movements need to clarify their stance on several issues. On the role of Islam in politics, they cannot repudiate their commitment to sharia (a legal system based on Islamic principles).

But they could allay many fears by being clearer about the principles of sharia they consider central.

These movements also need to address their dual identity as both religious movements and political actors. Some movements, like the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, have already established separate political movements. But others, like the powerful Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, while prevented by the government from forming a political party, are nonetheless reluctant to commit to one in principle.

Religious movements deal with absolutes – issues of good and evil, of right and wrong – and can demand conformity from their members as long as membership is voluntary. Political movements, by contrast, make – or participate in making – decisions that affect all citizens, and thus have to respect basic principles shared by all. They must tolerate dissent, be open to compromise, and follow domestic law, even if they do not approve of it. Movements that fail to separate their political and religious identities risk ending up betwixt and between, where their democratic credentials could be in doubt.

Finally, these movements must clarify their stances on women and minorities. It is not enough to issue general statements about their respect for women and minorities within a politicised Islamic framework; they need to clarify their position on the rights of women vis-à-vis male family members and treat women and men equally in the public domain. Also, clarity has been missing on the side of many of these movements regarding the right of religious minorities to hold public office.

As Islamic movements formulate their positions on these issues they should keep in mind Obama’s single standard for all who hold power: “You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.”

Addressing these concerns would go a long way in persuading the United States to engage Islamic movements in making the Arab world a better place. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s the authoritarian rulers themselves who must reform. But a pragmatic collaboration between the new US administration and peaceful Islamic movements could spur such rulers towards a more pluralistic Arab world. Now that the ball is in their court, Islamic opposition movements should seize the moment.


* Amr Hamzawy is a senior associate, and Jeffrey Christiansen is a researcher, at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Al Ahram.