Post Arab Spring, Where Do Islamist Parties Stand?

Apr 1, 2014
Originally published on April 1, 2014 6:23 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here's a more immediate issue. Egypt says it will hold presidential elections in May. The likely winner is General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He led the military coup last summer which overthrew the elected government.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The rise and fall of President Mohammed Morsi was a special test for democracy. That's because Morsi came from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party. Morsi was blamed for playing to the fringe elements of his party and then he was fatally undermined by his opposition inside and outside the government.

People across the Arab world have struggled for years to find some way to mesh Islamist groups with democratic thought. And Shadi Hamid has spent years trying to understand what's going right - or wrong. His new book is called "Temptations of Power."

Now, you're getting at a fundamental question here because Americans, by and large, would like to see more democracy in the world, would certainly like to see more democracy in the Middle East, but there's always this question: Is democracy compatible with a country where there's a large Islamist movement? That's the fundamental question you're asking here.

SHADI HAMID: Exactly. And I think we have to be, you know, very forthright about it, that liberal democracy in particular is probably not going to be compatible with these deeply religious societies that have Islamist parties for the foreseeable future. I think in terms of the democratic process, Islamist groups have come a long way. They've embraced many of the tenets of democracy - alternation of power, democratic elections, legitimacy comes from the people and not necessarily just from God's law - but that doesn't mean that they're liberals or going to become liberals. So on things like women's rights, minority rights, they're going to still hold to a conservative vision for society. So there's a real tension there. And that's where I think Americans are sometimes torn. They want to support the democratic process, but then the parties that win often believed in things that we, as Americans, don't feel comfortable with.

INSKEEP: So there's been an opportunity to test, in however imperfect away, some truisms or just common statements about Islamists and democracy. One of them used to be one person one vote, one time. The idea that if you allow an election in which Islamists win, it will be the last election the Islamists will permit. Has that proven to be true?

HAMID: No, it hasn't. But you could also argue that we haven't actually tested it out properly; that Islamists haven't had a chance to govern for long periods of time. I mean Egypt, Morsi was only in power for a year and then the experiment was shot down very quickly.

INSKEEP: He was thrown out of office, right.

HAMID: Exactly. But I think it's ironic that we always accuse Islamists of trying to subvert the democratic process when most autocrats, in the region historically, have been, quote-unquote, "secular," or at least non-Islamists. And it was actually liberals in Egypt who almost unanimously supported the military coup in July that overthrew the country's first democratically elected president.

And I think this gets a bigger issue of that there's a fundamental ideological divide in the region that you have Islamists, you have secularists, they really hate each other, and it's not just about power and politics. They actually do have fundamentally different worldviews. And that's why I think we shouldn't pretend that Islamists are going to be normalized after they've spent five years in power. No, Islamists do have a particular vision that's sees religion playing a more central role in public life.

So it's understandable that liberals and secularists would feel threatened because that's very raw and existential. We're talking about the very nature of the nation-state.

INSKEEP: There's been this common phrase that if Islamists are brought into a democratic process, they will become more pragmatic. They will respond to the real needs of the people because that's how you win elections. Has that proven to be true?

HAMID: The one example where you have an Islamist-oriented party delivering, and being very successful on that front, is in Turkey, where the economy grew tremendously under the leadership of Prime Minister Erdogan and the AK Party. And so you do see that ability to deliver. But over time, when they come up under opposition, there's a tendency or a temptation, if you will, to go back to your base and revert to kind of ideology, to populism. And that's what Erdogan has been doing.

He isn't focusing as much on the economy. He's focusing on this kind of war he has with his secular opposition. So, I think, over time it's inevitable that you're going to have trouble delivering as an Islamist party. And that's when the temptation comes.

INSKEEP: Your research here, or your thinking, points in some troubling directions. There used to be a saying, the Arab world is not ready for democracy. That's been denounced, discredited, called racist, any number of different things. But you're saying in some ways the Arab world may not be ready for democracy, at least not yet.

HAMID: Well, I think that's what we've seen, that a lot of people say they believe in democracy in theory. But when push comes to shove, and they have actually practice it, then democracy doesn't seem so good to them. They would say, we're the ones that have to live with the consequences of elections. And sometimes to them it's not worth it. And people assume that democracy leads to an improvement in the economic situation. But then there were millions of Egyptians who realized that just because you have democratic elections, the economy doesn't necessarily get better.

So the problem is that people kind of hung onto this, you know, word, democracy as an ideal. But then when it wasn't actually translating into improvements, in any number of areas, they lost faith in the democratic idea.

INSKEEP: Shadi Hamid is the author of the new book "Temptations of Power." Thanks for coming by.

HAMID: Thanks for having me.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.