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Middle East: Popularity Of Islamists Challenges U.S. View On Democracy

  • Ron Synovitz

For years, Washington has advocated the view that democratic elections are the best way to empower governments that respect human rights and the rule of law. But that view could be challenged by the popular support that is emerging for hard-line Islamic religious parties in predominantly Muslim countries -- including that seen during last week's legislative elections in Pakistan.

Prague, 18 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The growing popularity of conservative Islamic parties in the Muslim world is testing a long-held view in Washington about democracy -- that elections tend to bring governments to power that respect basic human rights and the rule of law.

Recent ballots in predominantly Muslim countries have brought political legitimacy to religious conservatives who previously were considered fringe elements.

Daniel Brumberg, a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in Mideast politics, told RFE/RL that the trend shows elections alone do not necessarily foster pluralistic societies and enhance democratic values: "As far as the broader premise that democratization reinforces human rights, it is not at all evident that rapid democratization will do that. As the examples of Morocco recently and Pakistan even more recently show, one of the primary beneficiaries of democratization [in the Muslim world] are Islamist parties. And the most active [Islamist groups] -- regardless of the fact that they spurn and reject violence -- are advocating a notion of citizenship and political rights that is antithetical to democratic values in many cases."

Brumberg argues that in the Muslim world, a better approach to democratization would be to ensure that Islamic parties are included as part of a competitive political system so that their autocratic tendencies are restrained by the existence of competition: "The answer is that it is probably better to have these parties included in some sort of democratization process than excluded. But a rapid change, one that would simply allow Islamists to prevail as they did in Algeria in 1989, would create a zero-sum standoff between regimes and Islamic oppositions that you don't want. What you want is a process of democratization that makes sure Islamists are one of several competing forces in the political arena."

Brumberg explained that the design of the political systems in most Muslim countries today discourages the creation of parliaments that are responsive to the needs of voters: "Most constitutions in the Arab world, if not all of them, pretty much emasculate the actual representative function of a parliament. They are there, at best, to debate laws. But they have no real function as representatives. So people get in them and they know that they'll really never be in power. So they are encouraged implicitly by the very nature of the system to act irresponsibly and to engage in ideology and one-upmanship, as opposed to actually represent, bargain, and compromise."

There are many U.S.-based organizations that seek to foster democracy in the developing world. One group is the Washington-based International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), a group that often finances its projects with grants from USAID, the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, and bilateral donors.

The IFES agrees that democracy hinges on more than just free and fair elections. It says successful democratic transition depends on the participation of citizens in the political process before, during, and after election campaigns. IFES programs focus on developing civil societies through education and assistance programs.

But Brumberg told RFE/RL that the U.S. focus on developing NGOs and fostering a civil society may be misplaced in the context of the Arab world: "NGOs are not, by themselves, a solution. That's the typical American fascination with a civil society that has prevailed for the last 10 years in the focus of our development-aid programs. I think what you have to take more seriously is the promotion of a competitive party system in which there are actual competing parties that have constituencies. A lot of Arab governments have not been keen to allow further political liberalization and organization of alternative voices. You have to promote that as a part of the package."

Brumberg warns there is always a risk that the initial beneficiaries of rapid democratization in the Muslim world are going to be Islamist parties -- especially if Islamists are the only opposition: "You have experiments of political liberalization that allow for a certain level of inclusion of Islamist parties. What needs to be done is to make sure that they are actually confronted by real competitors and not just the ruling party itself. If it's just the Islamic and the ruling party of any particular country, then you get a standoff that, from the vantage point of the ruling party, can only be won by those in power."

One example of a regime that has refused to allow Islamist groups into power, despite their widespread popularity, is Algeria. Brumberg elaborates: "Algeria is an interesting case. The Islamic Salvation Front was banned in a kind of coup in 1992 by the military. But you have the reemergence of Islamic parties -- certainly emasculated Islamic parties, but parties nonetheless -- that command constituencies, that have been involved in politics and are on the scene and command constituencies and backers."

Brumberg said Turkey is important to watch because it is a secular state that has tried to control Islamists by banning popular religious parties, including those of former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan: "Turkey is an example of a country where Islamist parties command a certain constituency, but nevertheless, have to compete with other parties. While the military has hesitated to allow Islamists in -- and while, in fact, they banned the first Islamist party created by Erbakan some years ago and then banned the second one -- I think the Turkish example also shows that some sort of process of selective inclusion is a better alternative."

Religious parties traditionally have played only a minor role in the national politics of Pakistan. Until last week's general elections, radical Islamic fundamentalists had never won more than 10 percent of the vote or more than a handful of seats in Pakistan's National Assembly.

But an alliance of six hard-line religious parties -- the United Action Forum, or MMA -- fared much better last week than anticipated. In a vote where no party emerged with a clear majority in the legislature, the United Action Forum finished third with 45 of the 342 parliamentary seats.

Analysts say it is enough to make the United Action Forum a power broker that controls the swing vote on many issues. And that could lead to complications for Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition he supports.

Both the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Quaed and the opposition Pakistan People's Party will need the support of the United Action Forum's 45 deputies to form a government.

Musharraf says the government that emerges from coalition talks in the coming weeks will take power early next month: "We honor the [election] results. We will hand over to a new government early in November after all the legal processes take place."

But the political program of the United Action Forum is hostile to the United States and sympathetic to Afghanistan's ousted Taliban regime. Politicians in the bloc campaigned against the ongoing presence of U.S. troops in Pakistan as part of the antiterrorism campaign. And bloc members are outspoken critics of Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led campaign.

Strong support for the United Action Forum in the provincial assemblies of the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan also could make things difficult for both Musharraf and the United States. Those provinces include the autonomous tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border where U.S. troops have been trying to destroy the remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Musharraf has played down the importance of the gains made at the ballot box by religious parties in terms of their impact on the antiterrorism campaign: "Pakistan is and will remain a key member of the global coalition against international terrorism. The strategic decisions we took after 11 September are consistent with our principles and our national interests."

Musharraf is holding one advantage in reserve. After seizing power in a bloodless military coup three years ago, then confirming his self-declared presidency last April through a controversial referendum, Musharraf issued a series of decrees that have changed Pakistan's constitution -- empowering himself to disband the parliament and sack the cabinet at will.

Musharraf has said that he will only use those powers if the next government proves to be corrupt. But analysts note that Musharraf's powers to disband the parliament could also be used to stem any rising political opposition to his support for the U.S. antiterrorism campaign.

Indeed, Pakistan's foreign policy is expected to remain under the control of the army and intelligence services rather than the Parliament. That has led to expectations that the radical religious parties will be most active on social policy -- at least at the beginning.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of the Jammat-i-Islami party within the United Action Forum, has said since the elections that his opposition to U.S. military bases in Pakistan could be negotiable.

But Shah Ahmed Noorani, the leader of the United Action Forum, announced a position today that is unlikely to ease concerns in Washington or Islamabad about the emerging political strength of fundamentalists there.

Noorani said his resurgent religious movement has named pro-Taliban leader Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman as its candidate for prime minister: "The [United Action Forum] wants reconciliation, not confrontation. We do not have any enmity with any party. We want to run the parliament in tandem with other political parties -- with the cooperation of other parties. We want to lead the country toward democracy so that the [Pakistani] people can get back their rights."

Brumberg says Pakistan's case, in particular, illustrates the need for competition between Islamist factions: "Even Pakistan, where the Islamic parties have come in third, they nevertheless cannot advance by themselves any kind of political agenda or cultural agenda. It is much too early to say that what we have [in Pakistan] is the process of democratization because the process can only be evaluated over time. But what it represents is the readiness of the regime. The regime will be able to contain and deal with the challenge they represent better in the context of some sort of slow process of political change that hems them in by the existence of other parties -- rather than simply a regime effort to crush them."

Last week, Brumberg testified before the U.S. Congress as an expert witness on the likely reaction of the Arab world to a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.

Brumberg said it is far-fetched for the Bush administration to assume that Arabs will respond to the ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by rising up in a surge of pro-democracy protests and installing pro-Western, democratic regimes around the region.

Instead, he warned that a U.S. attack could have the opposite effect. He said autocratic Arab regimes that refuse to support the U.S. war effort would likely benefit from a wave of Arab nationalism and find their positions strengthened -- at least in the short term