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Hichem Karoui: Talking about democracy?
February 25, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Some incidents happened in Tunisia and Egypt that shed suspicion on the intentions of the Islamist majority. Among other examples: a journalist has been jailed in Tunisia for publication of a woman’s picture (then released); and the artist Adel Imam is still to face a trial in Egypt for a ridiculous charge.

Should we be able some day to talk about “Arab Democracy” without causing brow rising, suspicious gazes, or hilarious laughter? Will the new rulers show us evidence that they really represent the genuinely democratic turn several generations of Arabs have been expecting?

The national democratic revolutions seem interested in the political culture of liberal democracy and human rights, though. Baathist Pan-Arabism, militarist unionism, Marxism-Leninism, radical-Islamism (Taliban and Iranian brands, for example) have all failed as alternatives on all levels: political, economical, social, and cultural. Only one hope remains: that liberal democracy could achieve what no ideology was able to do for the Arabs.

In the 1980s, the secularist impulse was in trouble under the pressure of the Islamist rising tide. Christian Arabs who played a key role in the development of modern Arab culture and political thought since the 19th century were, a century later, marginalised. Many of them felt threatened and were, sometimes, forced to seek refuge in Europe and America.

The rise of hardliners has continued, though, reinforced by repression. Today, many people are scared by the perspective that the political life of the Arab world be reduced to a fight between dictatorial regimes and Islamists. The modern Arab culture is much concerned by this dilemma.

Even if the achievements of the post-colonial independent states were scanty and unfinished, they represented sometimes a frail hurdle against barbarism. For after all, men like Bourguiba, Nasser, Boumediene, and even Hafiz Assad and Saddam, before they took the fatal turn towards unbearable dictatorship, have played modernity against backward tradition, secularism against religious totalitarianism, and tried to maintain a minimum level of adjustment to the requirements of our time, while imposing a dictatorial (and — alas — sometimes brutal) rule. Modern culture was not banished in their societies.

The Arab democrats of current times are inheritors of liberal precursors, such as Lotfi as-Sayyid, Salama Moussa, Taha Hussein (Egypt), Taher Al Haddad, Bachir Sfar, Ali Bach Hamba (Tunisia) and many others in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, etc...

While modern democracy is connected to the liberal trend in political thought, the Islamist thinkers do not agree on giving it the same signification.

The Islamist revivalist prefers to use the Islamic concept of “Shura” instead of democracy. The Marxist-Leninist understands democracy only when it is linked to the dictatorship of the proletariat. The classic Pan-Arab nationalist considered it a secondary objective and did not give it a thought. The liberal meaning has long been obliterated in the succession of dictatorships throughout the Arab world, although several countries have experienced the multiparty system (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia...) since the first quarter of the 20th century. Even in the Gulf, demands for political participation began as early as the 1930s.

In Islamic jurisprudence, the “Shura” (consultancy) is also restrained to the elite loyal to the ruler (ahl Al hall wal ‘aqd). For Sheikh Muhammad Abdu, who was all the same considered as an influential reformist, “Shura” means the absence of “absolute despotism.” Abdu actually believed that the East needed only the rise of a “strong man” whom he labelled a “just despot.” Such a man in his eyes “remaining just to his people, would achieve in 15 years what reason alone cannot achieve in 15 centuries.”

Apparently, such an idea made its way throughout the Arab world in the 20th century as far as we can infer from the multiplication of the autocratic regimes that took over after the Second World War and even before it. Several of them claimed to modernise their countries and achieve some sort of economic and cultural independence regarding the great powers of the West and the East. While they succeeded in introducing some social and economic reforms according to the standards of either capitalism or socialism as they interpreted them, they failed in reaching the levels of development promised. They also failed completely in the democratic test. It seemed therefore that Muhammad Abdu’s idea about the “just despot” was useful to them, although it poisoned the life of their people.

Democracy was also suspect in the eyes of their opponents among the Islamist groups. For the latter, the sovereignty of the people, which is the core of the democratic rule, is at odds with the sovereignty of God (Al Hakimiyya), the source of all Islamic laws and governments. Moreover, whatever the virtues of democracy, “Shura” is preferable to them since it does not impel imitating the West. That is why the Algerian Islamic Front of Salvation (FIS) stated — even before the announcement of the electoral results that would bring it to power — that it intended “to discontinue the application of democracy as soon as it assumed power.”

Some of the Islamist groups might have adjusted their views to fit in the new social trends, particularly since the revolutions that toppled the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt (January, February 2011). Thus, the Tunisian leader of Al Nahdha party, Rachid Al Ghanouchi, stated just before his return from exile that their experience has ripened their thought and they became much interested in the Turkish model (meaning the AKP of Erdogan). The Egyptian Brotherhood also made similar reassuring statements.

Yet, while these new openings remain to be tested, it should be noted that initially the Islamists levelled two arguments against democracy, both based on the notion of Tawheed (the oneness or unity of God). Firstly, they denounced democracy as shirk bi-Allah (attributing partners to God). In their eyes, the right to legislate without being bound by a superior Divine authority contradicts the Holy Quran decree: “The command is for none but God” (12:40).

Secondly, human sovereignty, they contend, contradicts God’s sovereignty (Hakimiyya). Whereas in democracy the legislator is the people, according to the Tawheed of Islam, sovereignty (Hakimiyya) is the sole prerogative of God, and any usurpation of the legislative authority from God undermines that Tawheed. From this perspective, democracy is considered a form of ignorance (Jahiliyya). We see this in Banna’s rejection of Egyptian parliamentary politics and suggestion that the Umma must be directly represented through adherence to Islamic precepts.

How far is the standing of today’s rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, and soon in Libya, Yemen, and probably Syria, regarding the political culture that shaped the Islamist thought remains to be seen and tested.
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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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