Accessibility links

Breaking News

World: Muslim Liberals Steer Course Between Autocrats And Theocrats

Saad Eddin Ibrahim at an RFE/RL panel discussion on June 13 (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, June 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Saad Eddin Ibrahim is one of Egypt's most vocal advocates for democracy and has served time in prison for his efforts. Convicted in 2000 of accepting foreign funds without official permission, he was freed after three years when Egypt's highest appeal court declared his trials improper and cleared his name. Now, as founder and chairman of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and professor of political sociology at American University in Cairo, he continues to speak out on the problems of reforming autocratic societies. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with Ibrahim after he took part in a June 13 panel discussion at RFE/RL in Prague.

RFE/RL: You have said that in many nondemocratic Muslim countries, would-be democrats find themselves squeezed between autocrats and theocrats. To help us understand this image more fully, would you describe these three camps and their origins?

Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Well, first of all, the autocrats have been in power [in the Middle East] for nearly 60 years. Shortly after the Second World War, when the first wave of independence did not fulfill its promises, then we had a series of coup d'etats and one party systems prevailing in many of the Muslim-majority countries, including the Arab countries.

All right, they made a lot of promises. They said, "We'll give you social justice; we'll liberate Palestine for you; we will achieve Arab unity; we will assert our authenticity, but just forget about democracy and human rights for a while, until we fulfill all the above." Many people actually believed them, and many people said "yes." However, very soon, not very soon, 10, 15, 20 years later, was the defeat in the Arab world [in the 1967 Six-Day War] of three Arab armies from countries that had made that kind of deal and these kind of promises [Egypt, Syria, and Jordan], and people began to question the social contract -- the populist or autocratic social contract -- that was offered to them. And they began to make noise about democracy.

"So here I was, a liberal democrat, ending up in prison with the Muslim Brothers, with the Jihadists. So in prison a bond is created between all the victims of the autocrats. And to that extent there is some common ground."

So the autocrats began to administer oppressive measures against those who were asking for freedom and for revising the social contract. This is the [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser era, or the [Syrian President Hafez] al-Assad era, or the [Libyan President Muammar] Qaddafi era, and so on. [The reformers] did not get very far in this challenge because they did not have the machinery of the state or they could not contest the repressive institutions of the state.

However, some other constituency rose up against the autocrats -- and that is the theocrats. And they, in essence, are a mirror image, because they do not believe in liberal freedoms or in democracy the way democrats do. However, they had a constituency. All of those who had misgivings with the autocrats, all of those who feel, who felt, a little deprivation, began to listen to this autocratic message, varying degrees, varying shades of it. And because they have monopoly over mosques everywhere, they could not be repressed as much as democrats have been repressed.

So what you have, you have a scene now -- especially in the Arab countries -- in which these populist autocratic regimes have repressed the liberals, the democrats, and have not been able fully to overcome or to silence the theocrats. So what you have now is a three-way conflict between these three diverse groups.

RFE/RL: What chances do democrats have to change this situation, to make their drive for reforms felt despite their difficult current position?

Ibrahim: We feel as democrats, speaking for the democrats, that if we have access to free media, if we have access to free organization, we can definitely have a majority in any open contest. Why do I say that? Is this wishful thinking? No. It is based on concrete empirical observation.

And again I'll take Egypt as an example. Now our last parliamentary elections, only 23 percent of the eligible, registered voters turned out. Seventy-seven percent stayed home. These are registered, and they're fairly well educated, either literate or primary school or secondary school or college education. They are not illiterate; they are not the poorest of the poor.

Why did they stay home? Because they did not like the alternative. They did not like to vote for the autocratic regime of [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, which is perceived by so many as most corrupt and inept. Nor did they want to take risks in voting for the theocrats represented by the Muslim parties. So they stayed home. The phenomena that we know in political sociology as cross-pressure: you don't like either alternative so you stay home. You abstain.

We are hoping that through exerting pressure on the autocrats by Western powers that have been supporting them for the last several decades, that they will open the public space. They will allow us the kind of access that enables us to stem the flow of the theocrats but also to share power gradually with the autocrats. And here we have been calling on the West, on Western democracies, to adopt the same Helsinki formula that from 1975 until 1985, during 10 years created wonderful things in Europe. [We would like to] have the West, the so-called community of democracies, use the same formula that proved so successful in Europe -- brought down the Soviet Union and the other Eastern and Central European authoritarian and totalitarian regimes down without a bullet, without a war.

And that's what we're calling for. Instead of going on the Iraq model, which has now has more or less given democracy and democracy promotion a la Western-style a bad name. No. Use from your own repertoire, from your own experience, the model that worked, succeeded, and is peaceful. And it engaged or entailed power sharing, not revolutions, not overthrowing, not violence.

RFE/RL: What is the relationship between democrats and theocrats, for example, in Egypt? Is there room for cooperation?

Ibrahim: Well we both, the democrats and the theocrats for the time being, they both detest the autocrats. Because varying times in varying degrees both the democrats and theocrats suffered and are suffering at the hands of the autocrats. I met many of them in prison, for example. So here I was, a liberal democrat, ending up in prison with the Muslim Brothers [i.e., members of the Muslim Brotherhood], with the Jihadists [members of Islamic Jihad]. So in prison a bond is created between all the victims of the autocrats. And to that extent there is some common ground. And it is that common ground that they have used or tried to use to draw them into the democratic fold. And I must say that if prison had any positive aspect to it at all in my case, it was my ability to at least sway some of these hard-line Islamists to come into the democratic process. And now they are competing for power.

During our stay in prison, they revised their thoughts. They issued three volumes revising their older ideas and practices, self criticism, and they were shaken up by [the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001] because they thought the youngsters who committed 9/11 are doing a disservice to Islam.

Now that's a long way from where these guys were 30 years earlier when I studied them. Some of them were still in prison, after 25 years or 30 years, and they felt very angry at the youngsters. However, they felt also partly responsible. "How come?" I asked. It's a dialogue, in prison you have all the time in the world to dialogue with everybody. So I asked them: "How come you feel guilty about that? How come you feel partly responsible for that?" They said: "You know, these youngsters, even though they are unknown to us, may have taken us as role models. May have emulated us. After all, we killed [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat [on October 6, 1981]; we killed prime ministers; we killed a lot of people; we used violence; we exploded things; we bombed things; and they seemed to be going in that same track. And insofar as they may have tried to emulate us, to copy us, we feel partly responsible."

Supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood demonstrate in Cairo in February (epa)

I wasn't sure. This is too good to be true, that they may feel this way. However, when I could ascertain they really mean that, I said: "Why don't you write that up?" So they wrote a fourth volume about 9/11, in prison, critiquing the youngsters who did 9/11, and showing how awful it was, and how much of a disservice it is to Muslims and to Islam. And, of course, at the time they had not even anticipated the war on terror that [U.S. President] George [W.] Bush would declare. But they thought that this is a calamity or a disaster for the Muslim world.

So we have four volumes of revision that these Islamists of varying shades have issued, and to even confirm the way that they have changed, whenever they had an opportunity to compete now for public office, they do so. As testified by what they did in Palestine. Hamas, after many years of shunning and dismissing democracy as a Western ploy and heretical, they came around and endorsed it and started competing and took it very seriously. Same thing with the Muslim Brothers, the Jihadists, and all of the people that I had teamed with in prison so to speak.

RFE/RL: Do you feel Islamist groups can be interested in power sharing?

Ibrahim: Yes, they are. Not all of them, but at least an increasing number of them. There are some who are still very doubtful of what democracy is and see it as a Western ploy. But the leaders and the bulk of the people that I dialogued with in prison, if you come to Egypt you'll meet some of them. Some of them now have been freed, and they are regular visitors to our center, and we engage them in our research, in election monitoring, for example, they participated. There is that kind of willingness for them to explore new things and to get engaged in research and monitoring and debates.

And that is where I made last week and I am making the point again to "The Independent" this morning is that the West should encourage that instead of being afraid of it. And I think if we encourage them to get involved in the mainstream, it will be the great service to democracy. Because they will legitimize democracy. They are known at least to a big bulk of the population, as many as probably 25 to 30 percent, as authentic Muslims. So their Islamic credentials are not in doubt. If they endorse democracy, that will give democracy the kind of popular legitimacy that may still be lacking in some quarters.

RFE/RL: There is much talk about Islamic democracy -- a term that is not very well defined in the public discourse, and so, not very well understood. But are we talking here about Islamists becoming Islamic democrats?

Ibrahim: Muslim democrats -- I don't like to use Islamic. I like to use Muslim, because that humanizes it, and they like that as well, and I have used that analogy in prison, and I said initially, "why don't you become like the Christian Democrats in Europe?" And they were a bit -- they took it to heart, but they did not really make up their minds until they saw the Justice and Development party in both Turkey and a month later --interesting, 2002, I'm talking now about the fall of 2002, I'm coming toward the end of my three-year prison sentence, and here we have, for my good fortune the election in Turkey and one month later in Morocco -- and the two elections kind of confirmed my thesis that here are fellow Islamists like you guys here in prison, and they have made that evolution and that transition from shunning and dismissing democracy to endorsing it and using it to get their message across and to get their platform an opportunity to be implemented. And look where they are.

And that helped my argument, and in fact I think the ones who had been dialoguing with me in prison by that time, especially after these two events in Turkey and Morocco, they became -- because after all I was a secularist, so my messages there was always a question mark -- but when these two events happened in Turkey and Morocco, they began to realize there is more to it than just a secularist trying to persuade Islamists to change course.

Who Speaks For Islam?

Who Speaks For Islam?

Young Muslims at a movie theater in Tehran (AFP file photo)

CROSS-CULTURAL DIALOGUE: On June 13, RFE/RL hosted a roundtable discussion entitled "Who Speaks For Islam?" The event was hosted by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes and featured scholars of Islam from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 2 hours and 15 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media


Undersecretary Of State Pushes For More Interfaith Dialogue

Prominent Western Muslim Rejects 'Clash Of Civilizations' Idea

Scholar Warns Europe Of 'Clash Within Civilization'

Antiterrorism Battle Can't Be Won Without Full Muslim Involvement

A thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.