The popular protests in the Middle East in 2011 have created a “seismic shift” in the region, which will reverberate for years to come. This shift covers governance, state-society relations, military-civilian jockeying for power, the use of oil revenues to pacify dissent, and the evolving phenomenon of “people power.” Following the demise of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and possibly Syria, Arab countries will have to respond to their citizens’ basic needs and to contend with newly elected leaders, mostly from Islamic parties.
Some countries will develop democratic governing institutions, which for the most part would be inclusive, tolerant, pluralistic, and respectful of human and civil rights, especially of women and religious and ethnic minorities. Other countries will remain ruled by a variety of autocratic regimes, both benevolent and repressive. Still, other countries will be struggling to keep from becoming failed states. Regional and outside actors—Turkey, Iran, the European Union, China, India, and the US—will remain important players for the next couple of decades.
As Arab Islamic parties enter the electoral political process in post-autocratic governments, and as they become central players in national legislatures, the US Government will have to develop new strategies of engaging them as legitimate policy actors in their societies. Washington already has established working relations with Islamic parties across the non-Arab Muslim world, including in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey but has yet to devise a coherent strategy to engage Arab Islamic parties, especially since the advent of the “Arab Spring” more than a year ago.
Islamic parties that have been part of government in Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Turkey and elsewhere, have not been a threat to their countries’ national security and stability. On the contrary, they have been credible and legitimate defenders of good government and the rule of law, and strong proponents of tolerance, and pluralism. Engaging these parties, including in the Arab world, can only lead to political stability. If these parties are unable to deliver on jobs, education, economic prosperity and transparency in government, they won’t be able to garner pluralities in national elections. In addition to their economic agenda, these parties will have to be committed to tolerance, inclusion, and respect for minority and women rights, and religious diversity and pluralism.
Islamic parties’ pragmatic behavior in national legislatures should be the litmus test as to whether Western governments should engage them during transition to democracy. Their legislative performance, not ideological platforms or interpretations of the sacred text, should be the metric by which to judge their credibility as mainstream political actors. If they fail to create entrepreneurial and job creation opportunities, Arab electorates, especially the youth, will turn away from them.
To remain viable political players, they will have to accept the results of future elections. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, and Turkey, Islamic parties have already passed the “one man, one vote, one time” test. The next round of free elections in post-autocratic Arab countries will show whether mainstream Arab Islamic parties have also passed that test.
The key challenge in the next decade will be whether mainstream Islamic parties—including Freedom and Justice in Egypt, al-Nahda in Tunisia, al-Islah in Yemen, Islamic Action Front in Jordan, Justice and Development in Morocco, al-Da’wa in Iraq, and al-Wefaq in Bahrain—are able to thwart the spread of Salafi and other radical ideologies in post-autocratic societies, especially among the poor and the illiterate. Furthermore, they also will have to fight the specter of religious, ethnic, and tribal sectarianism, which continues to trouble post-authoritarian governments.
If Hamas in Palestine and Hizballah in Lebanon renounce terrorism convincingly and demonstrate their willingness to participate in the political process peacefully, they too could become key players in helping their societies move forward. In the long-run, it would be naïve to expect that engaging Palestinian and Lebanese societies could be done effectively without engaging Hamas and Hizballah.
As post-authoritarian Arab governments move forward, several key analytic questions come to mind: Is the shift of mainstream Islamic political parties to participate in the political process tactical or strategic? How will they respond to attempts by remaining authoritarian regimes to push sectarian politics in order to undermine the agenda of inclusion and pluralism? How will these parties view and cooperate with the US-led fight against global and regional terrorist organizations and franchise groups? In light of recent comments from the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt about the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, how committed are these parties to a peaceful resolution of regional conflicts and to dialogue with the United States and other Western countries and civil society institutions in order to bring stability and economic opportunity to their societies?
Emile Nakhleh is a former Senior Intelligence Office and author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.