February 2004, Volume 2, Issue 2
Amy Hawthorne, Editor
Julia Choucair, Research Assistant

In This Special Issue on Political Islam

Insights and Analysis

Democracy in Post-Islamist Societies: Liberalism by Default? By Abdelwahab El-Affendi
Democracy, Catholicism and Islam By Emmanuel Sivan
Hizbollah: The Exception to the Norm By Farid El Khazen
Islamist Opposition in Algeria: Recent Developments By Kada Akacem
The Muslim Brothers and Political Reform in Egypt By Mustapha Kamal Al-Sayyid

News and Views

Islamist Parties and Arab Elections
A New Leader for the Muslim Brotherhood
Survey of Muslim Attitudes Toward Democracy
A Pan-Arab Human Rights Charter?
Egypt's National Council for Human Rights
Syrians Demand Reform
Democracy Funding for the Middle East
Political Islam in the Arab Press

Read On
A round-up of recent writings on political Islam; new studies on Syria and on Arab women and democratization.

Subscriber Information

 

Insights and Analysis

Democracy in Post-Islamist Societies: Liberalism by Default?

By Abdelwahab El-Affendi

Since his release from prison late last year, the prominent Sudanese Islamist and former Speaker of Parliament Hassan Turabi has been busy preaching democracy as the best possible system for Muslim countries. Many might consider Turabi's ardent espousal of democracy highly suspect, given his repressive record during the decade when he was Sudan's de facto ruler (1989-1999).

But Turabi is hardly the only Islamist now advocating democracy out of disillusionment with recent experiences with Islamization (in Turabi's case, the ruling system he helped to create was later used to imprison him). Across the Muslim world, there is a veritable stampede of Islamists away from hard-line positions. For many Islamists, the enemy is no longer the "renegade" secularists or the "scheming" West, but alleged extremists and their narrow-minded interpretations of Islam that advocate violence and assert that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Moderate Islamists are today at the forefront of a number of democratising experiments in the Muslim world.

The most important experiments are unfolding in Turkey and Iran. The two neighbouring rivals mirror each other in that in both the struggle is to liberalize and rationalize a militantly ideological state (the ultra-secularized republic in Turkey's case, and the militant Islamic republic in Iran's). In each country, the system revolves around a "sacred" ideology, a charismatic founder who is revered as an object of devotion, and an institutional core—comprised of an army, legal-political establishment and security apparatus—that acts as the guardian of officially sanctioned values. The ruling elite relies on quasi-authoritarian measures to maintain control, such as enforcing dress codes for women and vetting political actors to ascertain their faithfulness to the state ideology.

In both countries, moderate Islamists are at the forefront of the struggle to democratize, and thus rescue, the republic. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and the broad coalition of reformists around President Muhammad Khatami in Iran—in which moderate Islamists play a key role—pay lip service to the ruling ideology, but their central objective is to reform this ideology and make it more compatible with democracy. In Turkey, the reformists seek to limit the army's influence in politics and to stop the state from dictating the private conduct of individuals. In Iran, the reformists are struggling to limit the role of the entrenched conservative religious establishment and to extend freedom of expression and association.

The prominent role being played by moderate Islamists in Turkey and Iran suggests that movements based on some form of Islamic legitimacy may be vital to effect a transition to stable and consensual governance in Muslim countries. These democratizing experiments have huge implications for the Arab world, where internal models for such a transition are so far lacking. In Sudan, Islamists have a monopoly on power, but they have failed to play a moderating role (perhaps because of their monopoly). Elsewhere in the Arab world, political space for Islamists (and all other groups) is severely restricted, hindering their ability to press for reform.

The Turkish and Iranian experiences are promising, but they are also precarious. The Turkish establishment remains extremely wary of the AKP, and the judiciary and the army are poised to thwart the new government. Setbacks have come, ironically, from Europe. The Islamists have based their reform program on the contention that bringing Turkish democracy in line with European standards would remove undue limitations on political freedoms (such as restrictions on religiously-oriented parties) and personal freedoms (such as restrictions on Islamic dress). Yet the European Court of Human Rights's 2002 decision upholding Turkey's 1998 ban on the Islamist Refah party (a precursor to the AKP) and the French parliament's February 11 vote to ban Muslim headscarves in schools are undermining moderate Islamists' arguments about the compatibility of Islam and secular liberal democracy. As it happens, Europe, or at least France, now is moving towards the Turkish model, not the reverse.

The situation is even more serious in Iran, where the diverse coalition of moderate Islamists and outright secularists is far from united over its long-term goals. Most secularists want to radically overhaul the system, while most Islamists seek to reform it. The conservatives have gone on the offensive, resorting to crude tactics to derail the reformist project, including the imprisonment (or assassination) of leading reformists, the closure of reformist publications, and the disqualification of thousands of reformist candidates for parliament.

Unless the entrenched establishment in both countries decides that its time is up and voluntarily relinquishes its monopoly on power, the forces of change are less likely to be moderate reformists than radical revolutionaries. The collapse of the Iranian and Turkish reform projects would be disastrous for those countries, and offer nothing but bleak lessons for Arab politics.

Abdelwahab El-Affendi is senior research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster, London.

Return to table of contents.

Democracy, Catholicism and Islam

By Emmanuel Sivan

Let us dispose of the never-ending argument about whether Islam is compatible with democracy. The relevant question is, what factors will facilitate the Islamic mainstream's acceptance of democracy? The experience of the Catholic Church provides a useful framework for understanding the uphill battle being waged over democracy within the world of Islam.

Democracy historically posed a challenge to traditional thinking, especially religious belief. The Church fought democracy tooth and nail for the century and a half after the French revolution. It saw the revolution, and its offspring, democracy, as a danger to the very foundation of Christian civilization: the notion that states and individuals are beholden to obey the moral values transmitted by the revealed religion. French revolutionaries persecuted the Church, seeking to end its role as the exclusive mediator between the sovereign God and human beings and to undermine the long alliance between the altar and the throne. This only heightened the Church's opposition to the "democracy heresy." This opposition reached its pinnacle in the Encyclicals of Pope Gregory XVI (1832 and 1834), which condemned democracy as anti-clerical and rejected liberalism.

Dissenting religious voices emerged in the nineteenth century. But these harbingers of what would later be dubbed Christian Democracy were tiny and marginal. They would soon be dealt heavy blows by Nazism and Fascism. It was not until the 1940s that influential thinkers from within the mainstream, notably the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, constructed a theory that bridged the chasm between Catholicism and liberal democracy. This theory soon received the blessing of Popes Pius XI and and Paulus VI.

Why the breakthrough? First and foremost, the experience with totalitarianism taught the Catholic mainstream that western democracies are a shield against the irreligious notions of right-wing dictatorships and the atheism of communist regimes. Second, fears about freedom of conscience dissipated as anti-clerical tendencies among European liberals declined. Gradually, the ideal that the Church should serve as a check upon the state's power, and that within the state there should be no religious coercion, took hold.

In most of the Islamic world, especially the Arab world, conditions are very different. Unlike in the West where civil society has expanded during the last two centuries, facilitating democratization, in the Arab world civil society is weak, repressed by military-populist regimes that curtail democratic liberties. The middle class—in the West, the socio-economic basis for the defense of political liberties in a market society—has seen its size and autonomy greatly reduced. These factors have nothing at all to do with Islam as a historical tradition. Rather, they are environmental forces that tilt the balance in favor of the non-democratic tendencies of this tradition.

The upshot is clear: the Islamic establishment is on the whole anti- (or at best, non-) democratic, sharing the same fears that the Catholic Church harbored a century ago. It is, moreover, long subservient to secular powers out of economic dependency and the perception that the ruler is a necessary bulwark against anarchy.

The most intriguing question is why the Islamic mainstream has not followed in the footsteps of its Catholic counterpart and pondered the legacy of the decades of dictatorship. Why haven't the horrors of Saddam and Hafez Al Assad tilted the religious mainstream towards democracy? Why have mainstream religious leaders not recognized the merits of pluralism for religion's survival? Is it due to their fear that the radicals would benefit from democracy? Or is it their own authoritarian bent in religious matters that makes them natural allies of authoritarian rulers?

There are indeed liberal Islamic thinkers and movements who claim that Islam is a diverse, heterogeneous and ever-evolving historical phenomenon. They argue that the survival of Islam, which hangs upon its ability to accommodate change, depends on democratization and the creation of a law-abiding state.

Yet with the exception of Indonesia, where a mass liberal movement exists, Islamic liberals are few and far between. The fault lies not with their creed, which is eloquently articulated, but with their poor organizational and communication capacities. They are an elite phenomenon. Moreover, they are unable to woo the middle class, which is held hostage to the fear that democracy will inevitably bring about the seizure of power by Islamist radicals (as happened in Iran in 1979, and as almost happened in Algeria in 1991). And the radicals are vociferously and sometimes violently anti-democratic. They believe that there is only one way to protect Islam from contamination by secularist modernity: the application of Sharia according to their own strict interpretation. Pluralism, diversity, and public reasoning are anathema for them.

So the two key factors in the Catholic conversion to democracy—the lessons learned by the mainstream from the totalitarian experience, and the maturing of innovating and appealing liberalism—are not yet present in the world of Islam. The battle for democracy there is bound to be long and tough.

Emmanuel Sivan is professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His publications include Radical Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990) and Strong Religion (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003).

Return to table of contents.

Hizbollah: The Exception to the Norm

By Farid El Khazen

Hizbollah is sometimes cited as a positive example of how inclusion in the political process can moderate Middle Eastern Islamist parties. But Hizbollah is less a model than an exception to the norm; indeed, it is a unique phenomenon in contemporary politics.

Hizbollah has a complex identity comprised of three overlapping faces. Its first, most transparent function is that of a political party in a competitive electoral system. Founded in the 1980s as a Shiite militia, Hizbollah, like Lebanon's other militias, decided to take part in the political process when it resumed after the war. Hizbollah has competed in the three parliamentary elections held in Lebanon since 1990, and currently has nine deputies in parliament. Like other Lebanese parties, Hizbollah engages in patronage and is active within the social and educational domain.

Hizbollah's integration into Lebanese politics has been selective, however. The party has focused on ending Israeli occupation in Lebanon and Palestine, but advocates few domestic policies. Nor has electoral participation moderated its platform. Hizbollah still subscribes to its 1985 founding charter calling for an Islamic state in Lebanon. Hizbollah is the only Islamist party in the Muslim world that fully subscribes to Iran's political and ideological agenda and that enjoys support from three different states: Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. Hizbollah's Iranian-funded satellite television station Al Manar—the only Arabic-language satellite station run by an Islamist party—has transformed Hizbollah into a global party with a world-wide audience.

Hizbollah's second face is an armed resistance force directed primarily against Israel. In this regard Hizbollah enjoys a privileged status in postwar Lebanon. Hizbollah maintains an armed force of several thousand men and continues to acquire new weapons. In fact, Hizbollah is the only armed non-state actor in the Arab world that runs an autonomous military and security infrastructure with the full backing of its "host" state. Ironically, the 1996 April Understanding, a U.S.-negotiated agreement to end Israel's Operation Grapes of Wrath incursion into Lebanon, helped to legitimize Hizbollah's resistance identity. The agreement essentially said that Israel and Hizbollah could engage in warfare as long as they did not target civilians.

This anomalous situation was made possible by the chaotic war years, which allowed Hizbollah to grow rapidly, and by the political order that emerged after the war. Lebanon's fifteen-year war ended not by a peace conference, but by an act of war, when the Syrian army and units of the Lebanese army defeated the portions of the Lebanese army loyal to General Michel Aoun. The substitute to a peace conference was a political settlement embodied in the Document of National Understanding, commonly called the Ta'if Agreement, reached by Lebanese deputies in the Saudi city of Ta'if in November 1989.

More than a decade later, Ta'if has not been fully implemented and the component requiring the Syrian army's staged withdrawal from Lebanon by 1992 has been ignored. The uneven relationship between Syria and Lebanon means that final decisions in domestic and especially foreign policy are made in Damascus and not in Beirut. While other militias were required to demobilize after the war, Hizbollah and Palestinian groups are allowed to keep operating. This decision is in line with Syria?s regional and international objectives.

Hizbollah's role in forcing the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000 greatly enhanced the party's prestige. But because the situation in the South is still unresolved, Hizbollah continues its armed resistance against Israel with Syrian and Lebanese support. Hizbollah is now the only active military force in areas previously controlled by Israel and the South Lebanon Army, since the Lebanese Army is not deployed there. This situation is made possible by the Lebanese government's assertion that the Shebaa Farms territory, occupied by Israel in 1967, is Lebanese territory (the United Nations has declared it Syrian territory). The Syrian government concurs with Lebanon. Thus, the Hizbollah's pursuit of liberating Shebaa through armed action is deemed justified.

The third face of Hizbollah is the most complex and problematic: its role as a terrorist group. Hizbollah's involvement in clandestine operations dates back to the early 1980s. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has increased pressure on Hizbollah, redesignating it as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. But Hizbollah's supporters reject the terrorist label as based mainly on Israeli concerns. Furthermore, they point out that Israel recently took part in a German-mediated prisoner exchange with Hizbollah, and released 400 Palestinian prisoners to the group rather than to the Palestinian Authority—actions that are inconsistent with Israel's designation of Hizbollah as a terrorist organization.

The most important factor in the evolution of Hizbollah's role in Lebanese politics is the security vacuum in South Lebanon. This vacuum is maintained by Syria's deliberate policy of ambiguity, backed by Iran, and implemented by Hizbollah. As long as the vacuum remains, it keeps alive the possibility of a conflict between Israel and Lebanon and Syria, and thus strengthens Hizbollah's role as the party of armed resistance.

Farid El Khazen is professor and chairman of the department of political studies and public adminsitration at the American University of Beirut. His recent publications include The Breakdown of the State in Lebanon 1967-1976 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

Return to table of contents.

Islamist Opposition in Algeria: Recent Developments

By Kada Akacem

The map of Islamist opposition in Algeria has changed significantly during the past decade. Radical groups are in decline, as are the Islamist parties founded soon after the legalization of multiparty politics in 1989. At the same time, the leader of a new Islamist party stands a chance of defeating incumbent president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the April 2004 election.

Through harsh security measures and an amnesty program, the main terrorist group, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), has been reduced to a tiny—but still dangerous—organization. The turning point was the November 1995 presidential election, when voters defied a GIA threat of violence and turned out in massive numbers. The GIA declared the entire population "unbelievers" and unleashed a campaign of indiscriminate killing. The public, which previously had sought to distance itself from the war between terrorists and security forces, began to provide the security forces precious information about terrorists' whereabouts. By 1997, the armed wing of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), declared a cease-fire, mainly to distance itself from GIA's atrocities.

The FIS, banned since the military annulled the January 1992 elections, which the FIS was poised to win, is permanently gone from the Algerian political landscape. Neither Algeria's secular democrats, the general public who fear a resurgence of violence, nor the military—the real decision-makers—will permit its return. FIS leaders Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj have been released from prison, but are banned from political activities of any kind. The FIS retains a small group of hard-core supporters, but the vast majority of Algerians who voted for the party in 1991 now seek more moderate vehicles to address their social, political and spiritual concerns.

The original moderate alternatives to the FIS, Movement for Social Peace (MSP) and Al Nahda, have become marginal. Their supporters are disillusioned, viewing the parties' participation in government as useless "collaboration" because it failed to advance their interests. Both parties had poor showings in the 2002 parliamentary elections. The MSP is also hobbled by the recent death of its charismatic leader, Mahfoud Nahnah.

Stronger are two newer Islamist parties, Al Islah and Wafa. Islah, which has the second largest number of seats in parliament after the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party, is the only credible legal Islamist party.

Wafa has a brighter future, although it is not yet legal. Many Algerians, including former FIS supporters, consider Wafa a moderate alternative to Al Islah, which has extremist tendencies and is seen as a FIS proxy. Wafa calls for establishing an Islamic state through peaceful means and espouses a liberal interpretation of Islam. Its leadership is highly competent and experienced.

Wafa's founder, Ahmed Taleb Ibrahimi, has a chance of winning the presidential election if it is an honest and open contest and if there is a second round of voting between him and Bouteflika. Bouteflika is mobilizing a huge government apparatus to promote his campaign, and he maintains the support of some sectors. But by trying to satisfy everyone—his first government included an unworkable mix of Islamist and staunch secularist ministers—Bouteflika has managed to rally major political forces against him, including the current leadership of his own FLN party. The military's attitude vis-à-vis the election is the most critical factor. Its position is opaque, as usual. Recent indications suggest that Bouteflika has the support of part of the military, although other parts have suggested they will not back him. The military has indicated, however, that it will accept an Islamist president, provided he respects democratic principles, especially "one man, one vote, always."

Ibrahimi's electoral viability suggests how far the country has come. In 1995, popular MSP candidate Nahnah received only thirty percent of the vote. Many analysts attributed this poor showing to the population's fear that electing an Islamist would provoke another military intervention and bloody crisis. This same fear has helped to moderate the Islamist movement.

Moderate Islamist movements are now a permanent part of the Algerian political landscape. As long as the problems of corruption, social injustice and unemployment are not seriously addressed, political Islam will enjoy significant grassroots support. The so-called eradicators who dream of permanently excluding all Islamists from politics must recognize that such movements are one of the best guarantees of social and political stability because they resonate powerfully with Algeria's rapidly growing young population. At the same time, Islamists, especially the radical fringe of the movement, must realize that establishing a pure Islamic state at any cost is an unrealistic goal. Algeria's traumatic experience with more than a decade of extreme violence, which killed more than 150,000 Algerians, has inoculated the majority of citizens against extremism. In the best case scenario, Algeria could adopt the Turkish model, in which the military is the real guarantor of democracy, and in which moderate Islamists are allowed to capture civilian power through regular elections, as long as they accept the democratic rules of the political game.

Kada Akacem is professor of economics at the University of Algiers.

Return to table of contents.

The Muslim Brothers and Political Reform in Egypt

By Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has once again demonstrated its capacity for popular mobilization and thus its position as the most important opposition group in Egypt—even though it remains illegal. The occasion was the sudden death of the Brotherhood's leader, Supreme Guide Mamoun Al Hodeiby, on January 9. The death occurred too late at night for the morning newspapers to report it. Yet, the next day the Brotherhood brought nearly twenty thousand mourners to Cairo's Rab'a Al Adawiyyah mosque and convened a condolence ceremony that was attended by representatives of all the country's political forces. No other group in Egypt is capable of attracting such large-scale, voluntary mobilization.

The Brotherhood has managed to survive waves of repression since its 1928 founding—by far the most severe occurred in the Nasser era—thanks to religion's important role in Egypt's political culture and the decline of secular political movements, such as the Wafd, the Nasserists, and the Communists. The Brotherhood's longevity also owes much to its cell-based organization, its involvement in social services, and its leaders' ability to adapt to changing conditions. In particular, this has meant transforming the Brotherhood from an organization aiming to create an Islamist state by overturning the Egyptian government to a movement seeking to achieve this goal through elections and other peaceful methods.

This transformation began in the 1970s, when President Anwar Al Sadat released thousands of Brothers from prison (though he did not lift the 1954 ban on the organization). In 1977, Sadat re-introduced the multi-party system and offered the Brotherhood limited political space. The Brotherhood accepted pluralism, but contended that Egypt's secular parties were vastly inferior to organizations like the Brotherhood that were inspired by the word of Allah. Brotherhood members began to compete under Islamist slogans in elections for student government, professors' clubs, and professional associations, and they won massively.

In the 1980s, the Brotherhood renounced armed struggle definitively. It fielded individual candidates in parliamentary elections by forging coalitions with the New Wafd party in 1984 and the Socialist Labor and Socialist Liberal parties in 1987, and had a strong showing both times. But the leadership remained reluctant to become a political party. In the 1990s, some younger members were expelled when they tried to introduce ideological and organizational adjustments that would enhance the group's chances of qualifying as a party (they went on to found the Wasat, or Center, Party, which the Egyptian government refuses to legalize).

The Mubarak regime sometimes allows the Brotherhood limited room to operate, but fearing the organization's electoral popularity, represses it by vetting all candidates in university elections, suspending elections in the most influential professional associations, and regularly arresting its leaders. Now the Brotherhood would like to become a legally recognized party, to put an end to the continuous harassment of its members and to carry out political activities legally. The Brotherhood for the first time has joined opposition parties in calling on the government to grant all Egyptians full civil and political rights. But the Brotherhood has not renounced its original goal of establishing a state ruled by the principles of Sharia. Brotherhood members also continue their long-standing opposition to any settlement of the Palestinian question that maintains a Jewish state on the land that was Arab Palestine before the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Nor does the organization renounce its leadership of an international Muslim Brotherhood.

In mid-January the Brotherhood's Guidance Office elected Mohammed Mahdi Akef, age seventy-six, as its new Supreme Guide. Akef is truly part of the old guard: he joined the Brotherhood in 1950, was imprisoned under Nasser, and spent time in exile in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and in Germany in the 1980s, where he was instrumental in activating the international organization. He is likely to be the last leader selected from this older generation. The Guidance Office elected as Akef's deputies two relatively younger and presumably reform-minded Brothers, Mohammed Habib, a geology professor, and Khayrat Al Shatir, a computer engineer.

The new leadership has begun preparing for the 2005 parliamentary elections by engaging in dialogue with major opposition parties. The leadership's strategy seems to be to seek partners for joint electoral lists, as the Brotherhood did in the 1980s when a party list system was in effect. (In the 1995 and 2000 elections, held under a single member district plurality system, Brotherhood candidates evaded the ban on the organization by running as independents.) Adopting a coalition strategy would enable the Brotherhood to field ample numbers of candidates in the likely event that the government reinstates a proportional representation system in which half the seats would be reserved for party candidates.

The central issue in political reform in Egypt is the government's recognition of the Brotherhood as a legitimate political party. If the Mubarak regime persists in denying the Brotherhood legal status, not only would any move towards reform lack credibility, but the stability of the country itself could be jeopardized.

Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid is professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Developing Countries at Cairo University.

Return to table of contents.

News and Views

Islamist Parties and Arab Elections
The role of Islamist opposition parties in legislative elections varies considerably across the Arab region.

In five countries (Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Yemen), Islamist parties—parties whose main goal is the establishment of an Islamic state or the implementation of Sharia—are permitted to compete in elections.

In Egypt, Islamist parties are banned, but Islamists have run for office as independent candidates, typically as members of the illegal but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood.

Tunisia has a multiparty system, but forbids religiously-affiliated parties and candidates.

The Palestinian Authority also has a multiparty system, but Hamas—the Palestinian territories' leading Islamist opposition group—boycotted the January 1996 national elections, the only elections held under the Palestinian Authority to date.

Syria, effectively a one-party state, allows only candidates vetted by the ruling Baath party to run for office; these have not included any Islamist candidates.

In Bahrain and Kuwait, all political parties are illegal, but Islamist candidates compete openly in elections with the backing of political and religious societies, or as independents. Parties are also illegal in Oman and Qatar, where no opposition candidates of any kind have run for office. (Oman holds legislative elections; Qatar has held only elections for a municipal council, but plans to hold legislative elections in 2005.)

Iraq has not yet promulgated a new political parties law, so the status of Islamist parties in that country's upcoming elections has yet to be specified. But given the prominent role played by religious parties since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Islamist parties seem likely to attain some form of legal status.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates do not hold elections of any kind.

(Algeria is the only country in which Islamist opposition candidates have run for president. In the 1995 presidential election, Islamist candidate Mahfoud Nahnah received thirty percent of the vote.)

Click here for a table showing parliamentary election results for the countries where Islamist parties and candidates have competed legally or openly in parliamentary elections.

Return to table of contents.

A New Leader for the Muslim Brotherhood
On January 14, the 16-member Guidance Bureau of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and most influential Islamist opposition group in the Arab world, selected Mohamed Mahdi Akef as its new Supreme Guide in a secret vote. The move followed the January 9 death of Mamoun Hodeiby, who had served as Supreme Guide since November 2002. Akef is the Brotherhood's sixth Supreme Guide since its 1928 founding.

Akef, seventy-six, is a member of the Brotherhood's "old guard," having joined the movement in 1950. In 1954 he was imprisoned by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser for plotting to overthrow the government. After his release from prison in 1974, Akef spent time in exile in Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Germany before returning to Egypt in 1987.

In recent interviews, Akef stated that he believes the Brotherhood should seek to become a legal political party, a status previously opposed by the Brotherhood's leadership and long rejected by the Egyptian government. In keeping with the Brotherhood's historic opposition to U.S. policies in the Middle East, Akef denounced the Bush administration's policy of promoting democracy in the region as "false propaganda" and predicted that the United States will "collapse" soon.

Reportedly, the Brotherhood's first choice for Supreme Guide was Sheikh Youssef Al Qaradawi, an influential Islamic scholar and activist of Egyptian origin who resides in Qatar. Qaradawi turned down the offer, saying he did not wish to limit his affiliation to any one organization in the Islamic movement.

Return to table of contents.

Survey of Muslim Attitudes Toward Democracy
A survey of Muslims between the ages of 18 and 55 in 32 countries in North America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East found that support for 'modernist Islamists' (defined as those who believe in the compatibility of Islam and democracy) is higher than the support for 'secular liberals' or 'radical Islamists.' The results of the survey, carried out by the Middle East Research Institute in Beirut from August 2001 to May 2002, will be published in Arabic in March 2004. A second round of the survey will be conducted in summer 2004. To read more about the survey, click here.

Return to table of contents.

A Pan-Arab Human Rights Charter?
During a January meeting held in Cairo, the Arab League's Permanent Arab Committee on Human Rights unanimously adopted several amendments to the 1994 Arab Charter on Human Rights. For the first time, the committee considered the recommendations of independent Arab human rights experts in its deliberations.

The amendments strengthen the charter in several respects. They make nonderogable every individual's right to life; the right to fair trial; the legal status of crime and punishment; the right to political asylum without extradition; and prohibitions on torture, deportation, and revoking citizenship. They also strengthen workers' rights and refer more explicitly to the equal rights of men and women.

However, the amended charter still falls far short of constituting a viable regional framework for the protection of human rights. The committee declined to adopt the independent experts' recommendations to strengthen rights of fair trial, compensation in case of unlawful detainment, civil rights, and free elections. Furthermore, Arab governments retain wide latitude to suspend the charter's provisions to protect "the national security and economy, public order" or at times of "public emergency." Notably, the charter lacks mechanisms to enforce its provisions. This is in contrast to the strong enforcement mechanisms in the regional human rights frameworks of the European Union (EU), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Organization of African Unity (OAU).

The full League plans to consider the proposed amendments to the charter at its March summit in Tunisia. If the amendments are approved, the legislatures of seven member states must ratify the revised charter for it to come into force. No Arab state has ratified the 1994 charter.

Return to table of contents.

Egypt's National Council for Human Rights
Egypt's National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), established in June 2003, is now operational following the January 21 appointment of its first commissioners. Former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali was named president and Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, information minister under the Sadat government who is thought to be close to the Islamist movement, was appointed vice president. The NCHR's 25 board members include prominent human rights activists, members of parliament, the chairman of the press syndicate (who is a member of an opposition party), and a former judge in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The NCHR's mandate is to monitor the Egyptian government's human rights performance and to advance human rights education. Some Egyptian human rights advocates hailed the creation of the NCHR as an admission by the Egyptian government that it must show greater respect for human rights. Others are dubious, citing the NCHR's lack of investigatory and enforcement powers and its affiliation to the Shura Council, the appointed, consultative upper house of parliament. For background on the NCHR and on human rights councils throughout the Arab world, click here.

In another development, President Hosni Mubarak declared in a recent interview broadcast on Egyptian television that Egypt is a republic and that power will never be "bequeathed." Mubarak's remarks presumably were intended to quash widespread speculation that he has been grooming his son Gamal to "inherit" the presidency.

Return to table of contents.

Syrians Demand Reform
A new petition signed by more than 700 Syrian intellectuals, writers and lawyers calls on the Syrian government to lift the state of emergency in force since 1963. The petition's organizers intend to submit the document to the Syrian authorities on March 8, the forty-first anniversary of the ruling Baath party's assumption of power.

An English translation of the petition, which was published in Arabic in Lebanon's Al Nahar on February 10, reads as follows:

"On March 8, 1963, the National Council of the Revolutionary Command declared a state of emergency in Syria. Forty one years later, the country remains burdened by the emergency law whose effects have spread to all the elements of the citizens' and society's life, creating a situation which besieges the society, freezes its movement, and imprisons thousands of citizens for reasons pertaining to their views or political stances or for accusations that do not constitute criminal acts.

The emergency law has developed to include extraordinary rules that have depended to a great extent on the mood of its enforcers.

We the signatories demand that the Syrian authorities abrogate the state of emergency and all its legal, political, and economic effects including:

-Abrogating all emergency and extraordinary trials
-Halting all oppressive detentions
-Releasing all political detainees and prisoners of conscience, with adequate compensation
-Restoring the dignity of those deprived of civilian rights for political reasons
-Allowing the return of exiled citizens to their homeland under legal guarantees
-Opening a file for missing people that discloses their location, settles their legal conditions, and compensates their relatives.
-Allowing democratic liberties, including the right to form political parties and civil society groups."

On January 31, the Syrian government abruptly released some 130 political prisoners. Both the petition and the prisoner amnesty are reminiscent of developments in 2000, when 99 Syrians signed a petition calling for an end to the state of emergency, and the Syrian government responded by releasing some 600 political prisoners. A crackdown on Syrian democracy activists and liberal intellectuals soon followed. It remains to be seen whether the changed regional climate, created by the U.S. occupation of Iraq, will lead the Syrian regime to respond differently this time.

Return to table of contents.

Democracy Funding for the Middle East
The Bush administration's budget for fiscal year (FY) 2005, submitted to Congress on February 2, includes new funds for Middle East democracy promotion. The budget calls for $150 million for the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). MEPI received $89 million in FY 2004, $90 million in FY 2003, and $29 million in FY 2002. The budget also includes $80 million for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), $40 million of which would go to programs in the Middle East. Established by congressional mandate in 1983, NED receives its funding from Congress but operates independently of the U.S. government.

Notably, the State Department's FY 2004 budget, which President George W. Bush signed on January 23, includes $1.5 million for grants to educational and humanitarian groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals "inside Iran" to support the advancement of democracy and human rights in the Islamic Republic.

Return to table of contents.

Political Islam in the Arab Press
Prominent Egyptian Islamist writer Fahmi Howeidi, in a February 11 article in pan-Arab Al Sharq Al Awsat, argues that the Bush administration's plans for a Greater Middle East Initiative show that the U.S. seeks to reshape the entire Muslim world. The recent visit of Turkish Prime Minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan to Washington revealed that the administration sees Turkey as the model for political change in Muslim countries for three reasons: the Turkish elite's commitment to the secularization of society and the suppression of the role of religion in public life; the Turks' Western self-image; and Turkey's open relations with Israel. Howeidi claims that White House officials leaked the news that the initiative will involve sending Turkish representatives throughout the region to encourage their model of Muslim democracy. To read the article in Arabic, click here.

Moroccan analyst Abdullah Balkaziz, in a February 10 opinion piece in pan-Arab Al Hayat, traces the history of the Islamist movement since the 1950s, and finds significant evolution in its doctrine and strategy. This leads him to challenge the assumption, widespread in the Arab world and the West, that today's Islamists are inherently anti-democratic. Balkaziz wonders, however, whether Islamists truly have become democrats or whether they are simply embracing political participation as the last option to keep their movement politically relevant. To read the article in Arabic, click here.

The American war against Iraq has tested Hizbollah's role as a resistance movement, and it has failed, writes Sameeh Al Muayta in the Jordanian daily Al Arab Al Yawm on February 9. Hizbollah's supporters throughout the region expected it to be at the forefront of Arab popular movements against the war and to launch a war against the U.S.-led occupation. But Hizbollah's reaction to events has been deeply disappointing. Hizbollah seems to view Iraq only through its own sectarian interests, that is, the advancement of Shiite power in Iraq, rather than as an Arab crisis. Furthermore, Hizbollah appears more than ever as an arm of Iranian foreign policy, at a time when the Iranians seem to be trying to appease the United States. To read the article in Arabic click here.

Muhammad Mahdi Akef's selection as the Muslim Brotherhood's supreme guide satisfies divergent interests within the movement, argues Egyptian analyst Hossam Tammam in a January 21 opinion piece appearing on Al Jazeera's website. Akef strikes a balance between the old guard of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and the reformist wing, and brings together the local and international branches of the Brotherhood. Nevertheless, Tammam believes that Akef lacks the vision and the strategy to energize the movement. Thus, the Brotherhood seems destined to remain in a political gray area. This will paralyze all initiatives and prevent any change to the status quo. To read Tammam's piece in Arabic, click here.

The "threat" of Islamist groups coming to power is a central factor in the Arab world's stalled liberalization process, writes Birhan Ghalyun in a December 31, 2003 opinion piece on Al Jazeera's website. Arab regimes continue to use this scare tactic to avoid a democratic opening. Regimes exploit the middle class's fear of religious movements that might threaten their religious or personal freedoms—as limited as these may be—to ensure a base of support, or at least an acceptance of the status quo. The regimes have stopped pretending that they rule with the consent of their people and instead seek legitimacy as preservers of security against potential chaos. This results in a permanent "state of emergency." The "Islamist threat" is a key reason for the continuing lack of external support for genuine political reform in the region, as well. Ghalyun argues for a reevaluation of the perceived threat, since it places great obstacles in the face of all forces advocating democracy and ignores the principle that the citizens of these states must be allowed to decide their future. To read the article in Arabic, click here.

Return to table of contents.

Read On
A number of English-language books and articles assessing political Islam have been published in the past year.

Some publications address the broad theme of political Islam's compatibility with democracy. Graham Fuller's The Future of Political Islam (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) contends that Islamism is a diverse movement whose "silent majority" rejects radicalism and violence. Rather than push for secularism, the West should help empower this silent majority to foster political systems that are both truly Islamist and truly democratic, Fuller writes.

Noah Feldman's After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) takes a similarly positive view asserting that Islam and democracy can and must flourish together. Feldman offers policy recommendations for the U.S. to promote "Islamic democracy" in the Middle East.

Emmanuel Sivan's article "The Clash Within Islam" (Survival, vol. 45, no.1, Spring 2003, pp. 25-44) takes the opposite view. Rather than being on the wane, radical Islam is still socially and culturally vigorous throughout the Middle East, Sivan argues. Liberal Islam has failed to attract disciples beyond a small minority of elite. Sivan maintains that the core struggle for the future of the Middle East is not between extremist and liberal Islamists but between radical Islam and authoritarian regimes.

Other works examine Islamist movements in particular Arab countries. Barry Rubin's edited volume, Revolutionaries and Reformers: Contemporary Islamist Movements in the Middle East (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003), includes case studies on radical Islam in Egypt, Palestinian Islamist groups, Islamism in North Africa, and Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Several publications focus on Egypt. Carrie Rosefsky Wickham's article, "The Path to Moderation: Strategy and Learning in the Formation of Egypt's Wasat Party" (Comparative Politics, vol. 36, no. 2, January 2004, pp. 205-28), analyzes recent changes in the public goals of some Egyptian Islamists, to demonstrate how limited political openings can prompt radical opposition leaders to abandon or revise their ultimate goals and accommodate themselves to competitive politics.

John Walsh's article "Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood: Understanding Centrist Islam" (Harvard International Review, vol. 24, no. 4, Winter 2003, pp. 32-36) presents the Muslim Brotherhood as exemplary of the centrist Islamist movement's goals and methods. Although the Brotherhood's long-term goal is to implement Sharia as the basis of national law, Walsh writes, it has committed itself to working within the current Egyptian system to achieve its objective and renounces—at least in its official statements—the violent tactics of militant splinter groups.

Raymond Baker's Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003) describes Egypt's "New Islamists," a group of Islamic scholars, lawyers, judges, and journalists who provide the moral and intellectual foundations for an Islamic community that is "open to the world and offers rights of active citizenship for women and non-Muslims."

James Toth's article "Islamism in Southern Egypt: A Case Study of a Radical Religious Movement" (International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 35, November 2003, pp. 547-72) depicts the Islamist movement based in southern Egypt as comprised of many small, local, uncoordinated autonomous associations. Since 1995, Toth illustrates in a detailed analysis, Islamic militancy has gone into remission in southern Egypt, but the key economic, political, and ethical problems that gave rise to it have not been resolved.

Two publications analyze the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in the context of the Intifada. Sara Roy, in "Hamas and the Transformation(s) of Political Islam in Palestine" (Current History, January 2003, pp. 13-20), argues that Hamas has become a more vocal and institutionalized part of the Palestinian political landscape since the uprising. Significant parts of the Hamas leadership now believe the group could fill any vacuum created by the destruction of the Palestinian Authority—or perhaps even displace the Authority altogether. A January 2004 report by the International Crisis Group, Dealing with Hamas, also notes Hamas' growing political clout. The report contends that Israel's policy of harsh military and punitive economic measures against Palestinians has significantly increased Hamas's influence in the occupied territories, advancing the group's goal of dominating the Palestinian political scene.

A July 2003 study on Hizbollah by International Crisis Group, Hizbollah: Rebel Without a Cause?, describes how "today perhaps more than ever since its establishment in 1984, [Hizbollah's] purpose and fate hang in the balance." The party must decide whether its future is one among many Lebanese political parties or whether it will maintain its "hybrid character"—half political party and half armed militia, part local organization and part internationalist movement.

Janine Astrid Clark and Jillian Schwedler's article "Who Opened the Window? Women's Activism in Islamist Parties" (Comparative Politics, vol. 35, no. 3, April 2003, pp. 293-312) examines the apparent paradox of female participation in Islamist parties in Jordan and Yemen. While these parties have not developed specific policies for the advancement of women and historically have refused to endorse female candidates, they boast high levels of female membership and have some women in senior leadership positions.

Recent noteworthy publications on other topics include a report on Syria and a paper on women and democratization in the Arab world. The International Crisis Group's February 2004 report Syria Under Bashar: Domestic Policy Challenges analyzes why "Bashar Al Asad's presidency has failed to live up to the hopes of far-reaching domestic reform that greeted it in 2000." The study concludes that the regime is not immune to significant internal challenge, especially if the economy continues to deteriorate.

Marina Ottaway's new paper, Women's Rights and Democracy in the Arab World (Washington: Carnegie Endowment, February 2004), examines the diverse political, economic and social status of women across the Arab world. Ottaway challenges the conventional wisdom that promoting Arab women's rights is a key method for helping spread democracy in the region.

Return to table of contents.


Subscriber Information

Click here to receive the Arab Reform Bulletin via e-mail every month or to unsubscribe.
Click here to read past issues of the Arab Reform Bulletin.
We welcome your comments or suggestions. Please e-mail editor Amy Hawthorne at arb@ceip.org.

Return to table of contents.