Arab Spring: Working with the true democrats

Historically we have listened to only two voices in the Middle East and North Africa: the dictator and the fanatic. Tahrir Square proved that there are other voices we need to pay attention to

There are other voices to be heard in Middle East and North Africa
Nadhim Zahawi MP
On 26 April 2012 10:57

Last year events in North Africa and the Middle East refuted, once and for all, the lazy assumption that popular sovereignty and human rights are intrinsically Western values with no relevance to the Arab world.

In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya three nasty Cold War anachronisms were finally deposed by peoples who, after decades of repression, stagnation and official kleptomania, wanted their societies back. In Morocco, King Mohamed VI has conceded his parliament greater powers - part of a precautionary series of reforms aimed at heading off future tensions. For the Arab world, this is the first chance to establish genuine democracy since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire in 1919.

But the vacuum brought into being by the fall of the autocrats is not only political but also institutional. In long years of misrule, virtually every institution of civil society was corrupted or enfeebled by the authorities. The most important exception to this is political Islam. Better funded, and with the superior organisation and ANC-like prestige gained from decades of survival underground, Islamist parties consistently gained the largest share of the vote in elections last year.

In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood took 38 percent of the seats in the new national assembly, while the hard-line Salafist Al-Nour Party came second with 29 percent. In Tunisia the ‘moderate Islamist’ Ennahda Party won 41 percent of the seats in the Tunisian parliament. Ennahda’s ideological counterpart in Morocco, the Justice and Development Party, also won the most seats in Moroccan elections, obliging the King to appoint an Islamist Prime Minister.  

These results do not tell the whole story. In Morocco and Egypt - countries where crown and military still wield ultimate power - many voters boycotted the polls in protest at the uncertain pace of reform. However, they do indicate that Islamists are likely to play a decisive role in the shaping of each country’s constitution, as well as the culture of the subsequent political process. 

What is an Islamist Arab government likely to look like? And what does it imply for the UK’s relations with the Arab world?

We have few working models of Islamist government anywhere in the world from which to draw any comparisons. These range from the Hamas administration in Gaza, to the Shi’ite theocracy in Iran, to Turkey – governed by the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002. The first two examples are hardly encouraging, and not only on the grounds of human rights abuses or support for terrorism.  Hamas has failed to hold elections in Gaza since 2006, and the last truly free election in Iran occurred in 1980. Since then Iranians have been invited to choose from an approved list, drawn up by the country’s ruling clerics.

Turkey, on the other hand, offers us a useful case study of an Islamist government which is sympathetic to our values and with whom we can do business. The AKP government has shown that Islam can play a role in public life while remaining respectful of an explicitly secular constitution. And Turkey’s responsible stance on Syria stands in stark contrast to the position adopted by Iran.

So which way are the newly empowered Islamist parties likely to fall, and how should British foreign policy respond?

During elections, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda campaigned on non-religious political programmes, going so far as to publically rescind earlier threats to stop tourism, ban alcohol and force women to wear the hijab. Like the AKP, (or indeed Europe’s Christian Democratic parties), they claim inspiration from traditional religious values, but deny they would use the machinery of the state to impose them.

Meanwhile the ultraconservative Egyptian Salafist group, El-Dawa El-Salafiya (Salafi Call), of which the Al-Nour party is the political wing, has been striking a very different tune. One of its leaders, Yasser Burhami, has been quoted saying that women and Coptic Christians should be banned from public office, that the sexes should be segregated at work, the arts censored and Egypt’s treaty with Israel amended. Burhami has also described Osama bin Laden as a ‘martyr’. Elsewhere Egyptian Salafists have been accused of attacking Christians and in instituting a Saudi style ‘morality police’ – which deals out punishment beatings for ‘indecent behaviour’.

It is vital that the UK discriminates between groups that behave like this and those that are genuinely committed to growing a democracy. The Foreign Office must be prepared to deal very robustly with those who regard violence, threats and intimidation as a legitimate part of the political process - for they are the ones most likely to unravel the gains of the Arab Spring. 

By this I do not mean ignore them; it’s both possible and right to maintain a dialogue with those who oppose our values. But at the same time we should not afford them the same treatment as those groups which do share our commitment to democracy, human rights and equality under the law. What seems like reasonable engagement to us can easily be perceived as an admission of weakness to the Arab mentality. 

Finally, we need to take the long view. Democracy isn’t just about holding elections - it’s about developing the institutions and practices that guarantee the rights of all citizens, regardless of who’s in power: a constitution, a free press, an independent judiciary, habeas corpus, freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

From the signing of Magna Carta in 1215, to the Representation of the People Act 1928, which finally lowered the voting age of women to a parity with men, it took us 713 years to develop all the institutions of a true democracy. We must be patient with these countries, and offer our support to all those who wish to do the same.

Historically we have listened to only two voices in the region: the smooth assurances of the dictator, and the ravings of the fanatic. Tahrir Square proved that there are other voices. We need to pay them some attention.

Nadhim Zahawi is the Member of Parliament for Stratford on Avon     

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