The euphoria that surrounded Arab and Turkish Islamic political parties’ participation in national elections in the early 1990s has dissipated. Since then, strongman regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Sudan, the Gulf States, Turkey and elsewhere have muzzled these parties, eviscerated the electoral process and jettisoned democracy as the basis for governance. In addition, U.S. policymakers have generally been skeptical about political Islam and often worked to undermine it.
The decision by the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideologically affiliated political parties in the region to enter national elections was a strong signal to Muslim publics that Islam was not inimical to democracy and political reform, and change could occur gradually from within without resorting to violence.
Many of these parties were already providing social, medical, economic and educational services to their publics, which the state has been unable, unwilling or slow to deliver. The MB made a strategic decision to participate in elections despite the perceived undemocratic nature of their regimes. They viewed their Islam as a moral compass for daily social and political interactions, a basis of their worldview. People voted for them in large numbers because they judged them to be more honest and less corrupt than “palace” political parties. They were viewed by their publics as a source of empowerment for democracy, a promise for a hopeful future. Some votes for Islamic parties were cast as a “protest” against regime repression and corruption, others in recognition of the social services that these parties provided to needy citizens, still others reflected the belief that mainstream Islamic parties embodied the best promise for political change.
Opposition to Islamic parties’ participation in elections and to democracy in general has, however, been massive and destructive, and has come from four major sources.
Autocratic regimes in general opposed fair and free elections because of their animus toward democratic, accountable and transparent government. These regimes believed their rule should not be subject to popular scrutiny through the ballot box. They have always believed that forced obedience through bullets rather than ballots is the best guarantor of domestic stability.
Salafi-Wahhabi ideologues, whether in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, have opposed man-made constitutions and democratic institutions on the mistaken notion that divine rule was the only legitimate form of government. This is why Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, for example, have no written constitutions, and do not permit fair and free elections.
Many Arab and Turkish Western-educated “secularists” also opposed Islamic political parties entering the political fray because they did not trust the sincerity of these parties’ commitment to democratic politics. They declared political Islam believed only in “one man, one vote, one time” in order to attain power.
Some of these regimes often buttressed their anti-democratic position through the brutal use of force against all pro-reform groups, Islamists and secularists alike.
Powerful foreign state actors, especially the United States and Israel, which, in collusion with autocratic regimes, have generally been antagonistic toward Islamic political parties. Their underlying assumption: easier to deal with autocracies than democracies.
What went wrong on the road to democracy in the Arab world?
The optimistic vision of establishing “moderate” Islamic political systems based on compromise and community inclusion proved illusory and fleeting. The vision “moderate Islamists” were key to Arab political reform has become a mirage. Consequently, political Islam has become so muzzled it no longer remains a viable agent of political reform and pro-democracy advocacy.
So much has changed in the past two and a half decades on the rocky road toward democracy in the Arab world; not for the better.
The U.S., former European imperialist powers, Israel, Russia and China have supported Arab dictators to serve their interests. But Arab autocracy with outside support has failed to secure real stability in their countries or raise Arab peoples from poverty, let alone advance freedom and democratic governance.
Yet, these actors, including dictatorial regimes they supported, are no more secure today than when Arab civil society was vibrant and Islamic political parties were involved in electoral politics. This depressing state of affairs demands the U.S. and other actors reconsider their support of Arab dictators and replace their generous supplies of bullets with a renewed commitment to ballots. Ultimately, that is the only way long-term stability, security and possibly democracy can be achieved.
Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM and a former senior intelligence service officer at the CIA. A longer version was published on ResponsibleStatecraft.org.