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It’s democracy and not political Islam

In the bid to shift to democratic systems in the Arab world, questions on religion and its role in politics have arisen

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

In the bid to shift to democratic systems in the Arab world, questions on religion and its role in politics and the state have hampered the transition. Such issues have divided elites and pushed them toward an unhealthy state of entrenchment and polarization. Such divisions, entrenchment and polarization negatively affect society and obstruct the democratization process. So is it a real case or a made-up one?

I used to think it was real. I participated in many seminars on democratization in the last quarter of the previous century, the beginning of which was marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall that sparked a series of democratization moves in Eastern Europe. Most of these succeeded in a short space of time and those that didn’t eventually did.

Progressive governments found their consolation in Salafism and encouraged it to grow. They clashed with it sometimes and made use of it at other times

Jamal Kashoggi

During the seminars, participants had voiced a desire for a similar transformation in the Arab world. The question among intellectuals back then was: Can political Islamist parties be “rehabilitated” and integrated in political life as partners in the electoral process.

Right around the corner

This question was raised as if democracy were waiting for Arabs right around the corner. However, it turned out that the aim of the question was not to prepare Arab countries for democratic transformation but to actually to serve of warning of it. The expression “one man, one vote for one time” was espoused as a warning to the West not to push Arabs toward democracy as Islamist parties would win in the elections and then renege on the democratic process.

The events in Algeria in 1992 and in Egypt in 2013, when militaries intervened in the democratic process with the approval and encouragement of “civil liberal” forces, totally overturned that theory and transferred the problem of dealing with democracy to the democratic camp.

However, observers, oddly, persistently ask the question of whether political Islamist parties are qualified to engage in democracy! This kind of rhetoric, which cannot be taken seriously, is being used by liberal forces to cover up their shameful stance on democracy. It is also a call to a return to an Arab condition that ended and there is no returning to. During that “distant” period, political analysts, Arab researchers, Westerners and local reformists dealt with a stubborn political bloc holding on to power and enjoying some sort of legitimacy as a result of its domination. Back then, this bloc seemed to be the political fate of all Arabs.

Old Arab system

This constitutes the old Arab system which was formed of three elements: the military institution as a leader, an obedient bureaucracy running the country’s affairs and a civil faction benefitting from the arrangement. There were thus attempts to limit the participation of Islamists in state institutions. These attempts came after they failed to eliminate Islamists despite the abuse they suffered such as unjust executions, never-ending detentions and smear campaigns. These practices against Islamists were not the result of an awakened conscience or of a desire to reform but rather a campaign in reaction to the Islamists’ popular support on the streets. Official media outlets tried to minimize the support the Islamist factions had in fact really in neighborhoods and mosques.

This issue found its way to cultural seminars and newspaper columns with the title “political Islam and democracy.” At one point, it appears as a desire toward reform and openness; at another, a desire to justify the distorted implementation of democracy. Thus emerged the alleged pretext stating the need to protect civil society from the predominance and underdeveloped ideas of political Islam which both threatened achieved social reforms.

Progressive governments found their consolation in Salafism and encouraged it to grow. They clashed with it sometimes and made use of it at other times by encouraging the Salafist school of obedience, which calls on poor people and the public in densely populated neighborhoods to be obedient. They also benefitted from Salafism’s lack of openness, which makes it incapable of accepting democracy as they view it as heresy and aggression against God’s governorship and sharia law. This narrow vision was generalized to cover all political Islamist parties.

Intellectuals in support of their respective governments were thus like Don Quixote – they enjoyed fighting a non-existent idea in the core of active Islamism which has made up/ synchronized with democracy since the 1930’s.

However, encouraging Salafist ideas led to the relapse of some activists with regard to pushing for democracy. This occurred with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak was toppled. During the two years of short-term democracy, the Brotherhood’s deviation from the traditional Egyptian patriotic project – which set them apart during the 1940s – was clear.

The Brotherhood has thus paid the price in terms of its popularity, particularly among the intellectual elite.

Dialogue and competition

Dialogue and competition between political Islamist parties and the old Arab governments were not always distinguished by struggle. There has been co-operation between the two in some Arab countries such as in Yemen where the Brotherhood allied with ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh for more than two decades.

This alliance did not end until the Arab Spring erupted. Another example is Sudan, where an alliance was formed between the army and Islamists. This latter partnership was established according to the rules of the old Arab regime – i.e. it came at the expense of democracy. Arabs’ problem - whether they are liberals or Islamists – is with democracy and not with political Islam or any other ideology. Their hesitant and selective stance on democracy is what obstructed the democratization process in the region.

It’s time to raise questions for the future. Democracy, popular participation or shura – call it what you wish – will inevitably be realized. It’s a natural and inevitable development of history. One of its most important conditions is the right to choose. This right, which seems simple, is what changed the face of Europe when the government of the German Democratic Republic announced on Nov. 9, 1989, that its citizens have the right to cross the infamous Berlin Wall and visit West Berlin. This right transformed into waves of people tearing the wall down and ending the rule of the totalitarian regime, not only in the “democratic republic” of Germany but in the entirety of Eastern Europe.

Democracy is the right to choose. No elites, no matter how aware they are, can specify who has the right to participate in this game of democracy and who doesn’t. Gamal Abdel Nasser did so via his coup against a democratic regime on July 23, 1952.
Abdel Nasser rested himself and the regime when he formed what he called the “socialist union” to resolve the crisis of his totalitarian regime which had been threatened by the wish for democracy that was engraved in the Egyptians’ conscience. The parliament was thus made up of Abdel Nasser’s club and was not a popular parliament operating according to the rules of liberal democracy. He therefore set a bad example which was followed by other coup leaders in the Arab world.

There is either complete democracy as promised by any civilized constitution or no democracy at all. I also think that democracy cannot be postponed until prosperity prevails and the economy improves and people’s awareness increases. The time-tested theory is that past attempts at democracy did not achieve their aims due to tyranny. Therefore, tyranny cannot achieve prosperity and ensure a stable economy because the rules of “disclosure, accountability and punishment” will not be respected. The premise is clear and there’s no need for another article on the disadvantages of tyranny.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on November 15, 2014.

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Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.

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