In February 1993, a little more than a year after the democratic process in Algeria was aborted by a military coup, I organised my first ever workshop. I had been a post-graduate student at the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy (CSD) since September 1992. My topic of research was intended to be Islam and democracy. The workshop was a joint effort by CSD and a London-based NGO called Liberty for the Muslim World, which I co-founded in the aftermath of the eruption of the Algerian crisis.
The purpose of the workshop was to bring together Islamic political thinkers, activists, Western academics and journalists to debate the Islamists’ readiness for, as well as experiences in, power sharing.
From the Western side a number of prominent figures, luckily, agreed to take part. These included: Professor John Keane, who was at the time CSD director and my own supervisor; Professor Ernest Gellner, who was at the time Wiliam Wyse Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cambridge; and Francois Burgat, who was at the time a Senior Researcher at the Cairo-based French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).
The interlocutors from the Islamic side included Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Ennahda Movement; Dr Hassan Al-Alkim, from the UAE University; Dr Abdullah Al-Akaylah, a Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood Member of Parliament; Dr Nassir Al-Sani, a Kuwaiti Islamist Member of Parliament; Mustafa Ali, an Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) leader and former parliamentarian; Kamal El-Helbawi, who at the time was still based in Islamabad where he worked for the Institute of Policy Studies; and Rachid Ben Eissa, a Paris-based Algerian thinker and activist associated with the Malik Bennabi school of thought.
The papers presented at the workshop were later edited and published in English under the title of Power-Sharing Islam? and in Arabic under the title of Musharakat al-Islamiyyin Fi al-Sultah, both publications of Liberty for the Muslim World.
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I and many of my fellow Islamists endeavoured at the time to prove to the world that Islamists did not only accept democracy and pledge to respect the results of democratic contests, but that they were also prepared to share power with all other political factions including with existing ruling elites.
The struggle for democracy
The late eighties and early nineties saw the failure of a number of power-sharing experiments in the Arab region. To name some, legislative elections were held in Egypt in April 1987 and in November 1990, in Tunisia in April 1989, in Jordan in November 1989 and in Algeria in December 1991. In Egypt, the results were always tampered with to guarantee a rubber-stamp parliament and an absolute loyalty to Hosni Mubarak.
On May 19, 1990, the Supreme Constitutional Court, which still enjoyed relative autonomy, ruled that the 1987 parliament was unconstitutional and ordered its dissolution and the holding of new elections. Autocratic Mubarak issued on 26 September 1990 a Republican decree suspending the parliament. Political parties boycotted the November elections to protest against continued intervention and tampering by the authorities. At the time the Muslim Brotherhood, who were still unrecognised and banned, participated in the political process as members of a coalition they formed together with the Labour Party.
In Tunisia election results were similarly rigged in favour of Ben Ali’s ruling party and the real winning party, Ennahda, was outlawed and its members jailed or forced into exile. In Jordan, the regime started, soon after the results showed that the Muslim Brotherhood managed to win 22 out of 26 seats they contested, to prepare for legislating a new election law that would in subsequent elections deny the Brotherhood any such success. In Algeria, the army intervened to halt the democratic process by cancelling the second round of elections, banning the victor in the first round, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), and plunging the entire country into a decade-long bloody and brutal civil war that claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people.
Mainstream Islamist movements, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, saw no alternative to peaceful struggle for democratising the countries in which they were active. Despite having been the victims in all aborted democratisation attempts, they continued to be under attack by their rivals within ruling regimes and among secularist elites. Their commitment to democracy was always questioned under various pretexts. Western as well as oriental secular writers and commentators on political Islam, or Islamic fundamentalism – as it used to be called throughout the eighties and much of the nineties – persistently brought up issues such as human rights, women rights, minority rights, civil liberties, Shariah law, hudud, religious tolerance, pluralism and equality to challenge the Islamists’ claim of adherence to the principles of democracy.
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A most frequent justification for the restrictive measures adopted by despotic regimes to hinder democratisation was the claim that once Islamists won an election, there would be no more elections. This is how many French politicians and commentators justified their support for the crushing of ballot boxes in Algeria. This is also how many others continued to justify subsequent attacks on the people’s democratic rights across the Arab region.
Islamists’ democratic cause
It was in such milieu that the workshop entitled “Power-Sharing Islam?” was organised at the University of Westminster in 1993. Since, then, of course, scores of other democratic processes were aborted or utterly disrespected because they threatened to shift power away from elites that maintained a status quo deemed best suited for the interests of regional as well as international actors.
Only one thing would persuade despots that they had to change or be changed, a revolution. The voluntary and spontaneous popular uprisings that started in Tunisia in December 2010 and then spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria and threatened other countries in the region in 2011 were not initiated or organised by any particular political or ideological component. Yet, they seemed to be a gift from heaven for the Islamists. Most populations in these countries had been fed up with the status quo and longed to have it changed. The Islamists wanted the change to be smooth and painless and favoured a shift from autocracy to democracy through a power-sharing formula.
The Arab peoples rose and revolted in order to regain their freedom and dignity. The only peaceful means of achieving such an objective would be to replace despotic regimes with genuinely democratic ones.
Democracy, evidently, results in a significant victory for the Islamists, an eventuality that is dreaded by local secular elites, by groups whose interests interlace with those in control of deep state agencies, and by Western powers who are convinced that the rise of the Islamists to power would not be in their interest. The attitude of Islamists’ local rivals was to reject any calls for cooperation, including power-sharing, in prelude, as became evident, to joining hands with the opponents of democracy so as to abort the entire process of democratisation.
Today the war on Islamists, in much of the Arab world, is a war on democracy itself and on the principle of power-sharing. Islamists in Egypt, and elsewhere, are spearheading the struggle for democracy while their secularist rivals, both liberal and socialist, are standing in support of corrupt military dictatorships funded by reactionary royal family regimes. Whatever values the secularists assumed that the Islamists would fail, including respect for democracy, human rights and civil liberties and the willingness to power-share, have, themselves, so scandalously betrayed. Democracy in the Arab world is, today, an Islamic cause.
Azzam Tamimi is a British-Palestinian writer, analyst and commentator with a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Westminster in London. The books he published include: Power-Sharing Islam (1993), Islam and Secularism in the Middle East (2000), Rachid Ghannouchi a Democrat within Islamism (2001) and Hamas: Unwritten Chapters (2006).