Feb 28 2006

The wings of change

Published by at 2:59 pm under Blogs

By Daoud Kuttab

On the surface, the landslide victory of Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, in Palestinian legislative elections in January has not reflected directly on democracy in Jordan or the wider Arab world. But there is no doubt this political earthquake will eventually be considered an important milestone by Arab democracy activists.

The most obvious effect of Hamas’ victory has been within the various Islamic movements in the Arab world and specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, which sees the victory of its brethren in Palestine as its first real success story. That success, combined with the fact that Brotherhood activists in Egypt did well in last year’s parliamentary elections, as did their comrades in Jordan, where the Islamic Action Bloc has 17 out of 110 members of Parliament, has stiffened the backbone of their outlawed Syrian brethren in the face of the authoritarian Syrian regime.

For most Arab regimes, the victory of Hamas registers high on their worry index because it strengthens the chances that they will be democratically overthrown by their own Islamists. In this regard, a strong argument has been made that the resurrection of the Danish cartoon controversy, months after the drawings were published, was triggered by autocratic regimes that wanted to show their constituencies that they were as much defenders of Islam as are Islamists. This argument is supported by the fact that the cartoon issue was revived by Arab ministers of interior, led by the Saudis, who requested an apology from the Danish prime minister.

Irrespective of Hamas, however, democratic reform is ongoing in spite of ruling regimes. The overall effect of the information revolution has weakened attempts by governments to control the flow of information to their own citizens. The American-led push for democracy in the Middle East, coupled with the fact that the United States is the overwhelming power in the world and especially in the region, has resulted in democratic reform overriding all other issues.

Liberal and intellectual forces in the Arab world have for some time been divided. On the one hand there is a strong desire for political change and more open societies. At the same time, reform has been resisted for as long as it has been seen as being an imported or imposed from the West or Israel. With Hamas’ election victory, one of the most anti-American and anti-Israeli forces has been seen to use the democratic process to advance politically, and that objection has been shattered.

But as political Islam has come to be seen as the only viable alternative to despotic, secular regimes in the Arab world, the discussion among democracy supporters too has shifted. There is concern about the potential that the election process will be delayed or stopped completely once Islamic forces take over. At the same time, there is hope that the process of taking power itself will contribute to moderating various Islamist groups, thus helping create a serious internal debate in Arab society that could be generally beneficial to society.

Some Arab intellectuals are also hoping that, with the rise of Islamist groups, theoretical differences among them will become more marked. These thinkers hope for the rise of some kind of left-wing Islamist movement that will adopt Islam as a general motif, but that will also focus its efforts on such concerns as achieving social justice. While some consider such hopes illogical and the idea of a left-wing Islamist movement a contradiction in terms, proponents of this line of argument point to the example of Christian liberation priests in Latin America who combined Christian theology with socialist ideals.

Whatever ideological groups arise, it is clear that the Arab world will be witnessing many more changes of regime, with or without the use of force.

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