Friday, December 2, 2011

My appearance on al-Jazeera today

Earlier today, I had the pleasure of joining Dr. Azzam al-Tamimi, director of the Institute for Islamic Thought in London, Dr. Antoine Basbous, founder of the Paris based L'Observatoire des Pays Arabes, and Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies on al-Jazeera Arabic's nightly program, Hasid al-Yawm (The Day's Harvest), with presenter Layla al-Shayib. The topic of discussion was the future of relations between the newly powerful Islamist parties in the Arab World and the United States.

Speaking in Arabic, I discussed the Arab Spring and the future of US-Arab relations. I argued that the US has little to fear from the victory of Islamist parties in recent elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco (see my series of postings on Making Sense of the Arab Spring). My point was that the region has changed and with it, Arab Islamist parties. Rather than fear these parties, the US should engage those that are truly committed to democratic governance.

The assumption that Islamist parties are ipso facto hostile to US interests in the Middle East is faulty. As I pointed out, both the US and the newly victorious parties - al-Nahda in Tunisia, Justice and Development in Morocco, and the Freedom and Justice (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt - support democratic freedoms, social justice and economic development.

Compared to the authoritarian regimes that were overthrown in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, new governments which are ruled by parties that enjoy legitimacy based on victories in free and fair elections promise much greater stability and potentially less political conflict. Such an outcome is obviously in the interest of all concerned.

If the new Islamist dominated governments can move beyond a narrow Islamist agenda to focus on social reconstruction, tackling corruption, energizing the economy to produce desperately needed jobs, and improving the education system, they will become extremely popular.

While Islamist governments will no doubt seek to implement policies that secularists, both in the Middle East and the West, find objectionable, such as promoting specific forms of dress and regulating entertainment programs, they may actually promote a transition to democracy much as the mildly Islamist AKP party has accomplished in Turkey.

If the participation of the 88 Muslim Brotherhood members who were elected to the Egyptian parliament in 2005 is any indicator, participation in deliberative bodies acts to moderate radical political agendas. Without negotiating with other parties, members of parliament accomplish very little and risk being turned out of office during the next elections cycle. In Iraq, for example, 66% of the members of parliament (Council of Representatives) lost their seats in the March 2010 elections because voters thought they had not done enough while in office, especially to provide needed social services and fight corruption.

My comments on Hasid al-Yawm today were a plea for a new policy on the part of the US - one that seeks to help countries like Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt meet their development needs. What I argued for was a new partnership between the US and the countries that comprise the Arab Spring. Especially in a period of serious economic downturn, when its ability to wield power has been curtailed, the US should welcome the positive change that is occurring in much of the Arab World.

The US should try and provide technical assistance, and help create an international development fund, that would help the Arab countries which are trying to democratize achieve the ends that will serve the mutual interests of all concerned, namely strengthening democracy, individual freedoms and social justice.