They won absolute majority in the Egyptian Parliament and significant votes in Tunisia and Morocco that allowed them to form strong coalition governments in the two countries. The main panelists were: Dr. Muqtedar Khan, Professor of International Relations and Islamic studies at the University of Delaware, Dr. Mohammad Nimer, Professor of International Relations at the American University, Washington, DC; and Dr. Anwar Haddam, the well known Algerian political leader. Dr. Jamal Barzinji, Vice President of IIIT was the main discussant of the panel.
The discussion itself centered around four major questions:
a. What is the significance of the popular uprising in Tunisia and Egypt in the future of democratization in these two countries and in the Arab world in general?
b. In Morocco, what are the implications of the electoral victories of the Islamists there and the formation of a government led by the Islamists? Would Morocco evolve into a constitutional Monarchy dominated by Islamist polices and politics?
c. What prospects and challenges do the electoral victories pose for the Islamists, in terms of good governance, respect for religious freedom, minority rights and the rights of women?
d. And finally, what are the possible implications of these electoral victories on the process of democratization in the region and on the relations of these countries with the West in general and the United States in particular?
Dr. Muqtedar Khan focused on Morocco and pointed that the electoral success of Justice and Development Party (PJD), the moderate Islamist party following the success of Al-Nahda in Tunisia, confirms what has long been suspected: that Islamists are strong, well organized, politically popular and willing to privilege pragmatism over ideology, including sharing power with secularists in a democratic polity. He further identified three paths to political change that emerged as a result of the Arab Spring: Peaceful revolution exemplified by Tunisia and violent revolt supported by outside agents such as in Libya. Both these paths required regime change. However, the case of Morocco represents political change without regime change, making the constitution stronger and the monarchy weaker in the constitutional monarchy. The same path – Dr. Muqtedar observed – is being followed by Jordan. He added that the victory of the PJD is also a victory for the King and it showed that he is serious about political reform. Moreover, the PJD victory shows that Arab regimes can be reformed and the West is now ready to accept Islamists in power and not actively oppose the will of the Arab people as they did in the Algerian elections of 1992. Dr. Muqtedar qualified the significance of the PJD victory by stating that the King is immensely popular and has both political and religious legitimacy. He concluded that the Islamists now face the challenge of governance and the immense economic and social problems that Morocco faces. The general perception in Morocco is that they are just another political party and will be judged on the basis of the political performance not their religious credentials.
Dr. Mohamed Nimer addressed the issue of power underlying political mobilization at the grassroots level and the promise it holds in bringing the masses back to politics in the Arab world. He stated that Arab intellectuals and Muslim leaders do not appreciate the Arab Spring, the new phenomenon of grassroots popular revolutions that uprooted the dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and forced political changes in countries like Morocco. He said that the United States, France, and the NATO Alliance countries in general showed more appreciation for the Arab Spring than most Muslim leaders. Dr. Nimer believes that, contrary to popular perceptions in the West, Arabs understand democracy. The election results show that the Arab “street” believes the Islamists are the closest to fulfilling their dreams for a democratic and just system of government. He cautioned that there are countervailing forces and unfavorable conditions that may slow or impede the process of democratization in the Arab world. First, forces that benefited from the old regime will not give up easily as we are seeing in Egypt. Second, the grassroots mobilization for radical political change in countries with exhausted economies in an age of globalization represents a rare occurrence in history which makes the search for models to follow in the transition to democracy a major challenge. To overcome this challenge, he suggests reshaping the power structure in each state in ways that would prevent the control of the institutions of power by any social group. He predicts that Egypt may evolve into a Pakistani type of democracy, where the military enjoys significant influence in the political process. He also thinks it is expedient for the US to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood as they engage in electoral politics and face the challenges of governance. However, he contended that unless the Brotherhood abandons its old fashioned factional understanding of politics (us versus them), their chances of harvesting the fruits of their electoral victories will remain minimal.
Dr. Anwar Haddam opened his remarks with a quote from the late Algerian scholar Malik Bin Nabi who said: “Democratization requires the slow destruction of despotic tendencies in the cultural consciousness.” He outlined four principle that should be established as foundations of a genuine democratic system: 1) The guarantee of fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of peaceful assembly, 2) Rejection of violence as means of access to power and respect for the change of government through free and fair elections, 3) Non-militarization of political parties and their funding by outside powers and non-interference of the military in the political process, 4) Respect for and the promotion of the rule of law, citizens equal rights and the rights of minorities and women.
Dr. Anwar then identified five major principles for establishing democracy: 1) political authority should be based on popular will, 2) Separation of powers and an independent media, 3) Defining the relationship between politics and religion and the boundaries that separate them. Neither the state, nor any political party should have a monopoly over the definition of and the expression of religious truth, 4) Constitution of a political system that is open and inclusive, 5) Building of peaceful democracies that will not go to war with each other.
As the major discussant in the panel, Dr. Jamal Barzinji opened his remarks by criticizing Muslim organizations that do not have a history of democratic practices within their own institutions. Their challenge of practicing democracy when they are in governments will indeed be huge, particularly when it comes to religious minorities and women. He mentioned corruption of the judiciary as a major obstacle to the establishment of democratic institutions and practices. He thought al Nahdah of Tunisia is showing more signs of maturity in comparison with Egypt and he applauded the gradual process of change adopted by Morocco. He called for a closer examination of the Turkish model and for drawing lessons from it. In the area of political thought, he called for separating Dawa from politics and for the expression of this in the programs and plans of Islamic movements. He pointed out that the International Institute of Islamic thought will continue to focus on its primary mission of reforming Islamic thought and not get drawn into politics. Finally, he called for a more concerted effort at defining the role of the American Muslim community in supporting the transition to democracy in the Arab world (the succession of power within American Muslim organizations as an example).