“Islamic democracy and Muslim democrats” are emerging as a “viable alternative to dictatorship,” Abdul Mawgoud Dardery from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) stated on June 12 in Washington, DC. Yet Dardery and fellow panelists at the conference “The Struggle for Democracy in Turbulent Times: Practical Solutions for U.S. Policy” failed to prove this optimistic proposition.
The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy hosted the daylong conference at the Renaissance Hotel. Academics, lobbyists, and policymakers from the United States and abroad analyzed the Arab Spring’s aftermath in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia.
“Crystallizing authoritarian rule” according to political scientist Dahlia Fahmy, though, preoccupied Dardery’s fellow panelists discussing Egypt following the 2013 coup against President Mohammad Morsi. Even pre-Arab Spring “formal trappings of democracy” had disappeared under Egypt’s new strongman, former general Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi had imprisoned thousands of Islamists and increased control over mosques. Article 74 in Egypt’s new post-coup constitution banned religious parties like the MB-based Freedom and Justice Party of the deposed Morsi and parliamentarian Dardery. Nonetheless, Amnesty International actually judges the 2014 constitution an “improvement over the 2012 version” passed under Morsi with its various Islamist rights restrictions.
“Egyptians that want stability” supported Sisi’s military-installed regime, Fahmy conceded. “Egyptian society is divided and highly polarized” and “desperate to find any kind of normalcy,” fellow academics Emad Shahin and Yasser El-Shimmy respectively concurred. Advocating an Egyptian “non-ideological state,” Shahin called for “comprehensive national reconciliation” as “no side can win” among Egypt’s contending factions and “exterminate the other.”
By contrast, Dardery attributed much of Egypt’s divisions to “colonial…divide and rule” practices of the Sisi regime in contrast to an “Egypt for all” theme of diverse Egyptians currently discussing a free future. Yet Dardery’s past statements on matters such as supporting sharia as a legal guide remain reminders of the MB’s dangerous divisiveness and cast in doubt Dardery’s role as a conciliator. Similarly ominous, Dardery sported the black-yellow R4BIA lapel pin commemorating hundreds of MB supporters killed in August 2013 by Egyptian security forces clearing two Cairo city squares. Previously worn by Dardery at a January 2014 Georgetown University conference, the R4BIA websitecelebrates MB ideology such as the “end of Zionists.”
The Libya panel, meanwhile, dealt with an unstable “stateless country,” as described by Libyan-American doctor Esam Omeish, notable for his fiery pro-jihad rhetoric and corresponding 2007 removal from Virginia’s Commission of Immigration. “We are now on number six, I think,” World Bank adviser Hafed Al-Ghwell estimated in counting successive Libyan governments following the Arab Spring regime change. While “not a failed state” with functioning municipal governments, Libya answered to a “confederation of militias” according to Middle East specialist William Lawrence. “Most of the militias are not shooting at each other most of the time” despite regularly reported fears of civil war.
Al-Ghwell worried about Libya descending into chaos absent short-term solutions to pressing problems. He noted one million Libyan exiles, about a fifth of Libya’s population, who had fled what he described as a civil war, not a revolution, overthrowing Gaddafi. American diplomat Jonathan Weiner, meanwhile, discussed assassinations and kidnappings of foreigners as indications of an unsafe environment ruling out an American presence in eastern Libya.
Any future Libyan government would reflect that Libya’s “conservative society…heavily leans” towards a “large role” for Islam and sharia, Omeish predicted. Likewise “no Tunisian route” emulating the passage of a constitution without sharia in Libya’s neighbor appeared to Lawrence given opinion polls. What sharia would entail in Libya, though, remained undetermined.
The Syria panel, meanwhile, focused on crisis management efforts such as ceasefires rather than democracy. A “game changer” would be portable antiaircraft missiles for Syria’s anti-Bashar Assad rebels, Mohammad Ghanem from the Syrian American Council (SAC) argued. With Assad’s key air supremacy neutralized, rebels could then not only overthrow Assad, but also strike at the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in a two-front offensive with the Iraqi government.
SAC’s radical associations as well as the predominance of jihadist elements amidst shifting and loose anti-Assad coalitions, though, raise grave concerns about military aid. Prized possessions for terrorists, antiaircraft missiles in particular can shoot down both military and civilian aircraft such as jetliners. Far from cooperating with Syrian rebels, meanwhile, Iraq’s government has allowed Iranian aid and Iraqi Shiite fighters to support Assad from Iraq in what has become a regional Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict.
Rather than Syria, American policy supporting “dictatorship and apartheid” in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region concerned George Mason University Professor Bassam Haddad’s rant. Haddad did not explain what a “more balanced and just foreign policy” in Syria would be upon questioning or where Middle East apartheid existed. Haddad’s online writings, though, quickly reveal that his “apartheid regime” is indeed Israel. An “arguably legitimate reverence for the Syrian regime’s support of the resistance—principally through Hezbollah—to US and Israeli imperialism” might cause some in Haddad’s view to support Assad.
The one “fragile success” for the conference according to Lawrence is Tunisia. A “bright light” for Arab democracy, CSID President Radwan Masmoudi’s native Tunisia literally took center stage at lunch as American and Tunisian flags flanked the speakers. (The Tunisian ambassador’s residence hosted a sumptuous post-conference dinner as well.) The new Tunisian constitution, “one of the most progressive in the Arab world,” ratified on January 26, 2014, received the praise of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William Roebuck.
Opposition forced Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda, holder of 40% of the Constituent Assembly’s seats, to abandon calls to introduce sharia into the constitution. The text’s preamble opens with the traditional Islamic invocation of “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate,” though. Therein the Tunisian people possess an “Islamic-Arab identity” and a “commitment to the principles of Islam.” Article 1 that “cannot be amended” retains a previous constitutional stipulation that Tunisia’s “religion is Islam.”
Article 6 contains “serious legal contradictions,” according to Amna Guellali from Human Rights Watch online. Both obligations to “freedom of belief” and to “protect the sacred” exist in this “complicated and wordy” article. Attempted hereby is the “impossible task of reconciling…two irreconcilable visions” of “hyper-religious” and those supporting “freedom of religious choice,” with disturbing implications for free speech.
Tunisia’s “Arabic exception” resulted from competing parties being “open to each other” in order to “avoid all the extremism,” Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, leader of Tunisia’s Democratic Progressive Party stated. Tunisian leaders “learned a lesson” from democracy’s breakdown in Egypt amidst confrontation between secular and religious forces. The “experience of Tunisia,” Chebbi warned, “could not be exported.”
Not the secular Chebbi, however, but Ennahda received at lunch CSID’s self-selecting Muslim Democrat of the Year Award. Ennahda Constituent Assembly member Sahbi Atig, attending the conference along with another Ennahda member, former Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, accepted the award. “[W]hoever kills the will of the people will be killed in the streets of Tunisia,” Atig had said at a July 13, 2013, Tunis rally in support of the recently deposed Morsi. Seen by many Tunisians as incitement, Atig’s statement reminds of Ennahda’s troubling Muslim militancy. “It is fair to be suspicious of Ennahda,” Hassan Mneimneh from the German Marshall Fund later observed on the Tunisia panel, despite Atig’s claim of Ennahda’s “middle, modest Islam.”
Mneimneh’s skepticism of Islamic ideology and its compatibility with free societies, though, remained largely absent from the conference. Masmoudi deemed problems in MENA the “direct result of oppression.” “When democracy loses, terrorism wins,” Fahmy had proclaimed. Egyptian security cooperation with the United States and peace with Israel appeared to her as part of a given Egyptian national interest, irrespective of ruling ideology.
The radical background of audience member Ahmed Bedier, one of Representative Keith Ellison’s “real tight friends,” appeared likewise not to bother Ellison. “Orientalist, racist ideas about Arabs not being able to govern themselves” instead concerned him along with colleagues who “erroneously conflated” the MB’s “democratic Islamists” with Al Qaeda. Muslim parties that “renounce violence and agree to the rules of the game” should participate in democracy, Obama Administration adviser Philip Gordon stated. Whether such parties might radically change rules received no mention.
Yet Lorne Craner, a former George W. Bush Administration official, noted that “people started to lose their ardor” for MENA democracy after 2006 Palestinian elections brought Hamas jihad terrorists to power. The bitter fruits of costly American attempts to establish Iraqi Muslim democracy, meanwhile, remained largely unmentioned by the conference. Tunisia’s significant Western, non-Islamic influences also received little praise as a reason for that country’s success and ability to check forces like Ennahda. Alternatively, Haddad condemned the region’s one stable free society, Israel, indicating precisely the threats American power could unwittingly enable. Lawrence’s “democratically enthused populations” in MENA will have to do more to demonstrate that Islamic belief can sustain democratic behavior.
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