US should open dialogue with Islamists

By Roula Khalaf

Financial Times

Published: May 28 2005

US officials have a selection of colourful expressions to describe the recent democratic stirrings in the Middle East, for which they are always quick to claim credit. In the past week alone, high-level Americans have variously said that the Arab world is living a "springtime of hope", undergoing a "metamorphosis" and experiencing a "vital moment of incredible events".

In a region where the US has been deeply unpopular, US officials - so often on the defensive - are now also addressing Arab audiences with new-found self-confidence. In a more amusing moment at a recent World Economic Forum gathering in Jordan, Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the US vice-president and head of Middle East democratisation efforts at the US State Department, snapped at Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League, accusing him of bringing up the Palestinian issue just to win applause: "We should stop using [the Israeli- Palestinian conflict] as an excuse not to deal with reform and not to deal with democracy." She had a point, of course, even if she was booed by the audience while Mr Moussa was cheered.

But the US may be getting ahead of itself. It is true that Washington has helped unleash feverish debate over reforms in many Arab countries, but whether it will persist in its push for political change is far from certain. For while it celebrates political progress, the US is already being forced to confront an uncomfortable reality: that Islamist groups, moderate as well as radical, may be the greatest beneficiaries of its policy. Perhaps more quickly than it imagined, America has to decide whether it would be ready to accept the outcome of greater democracy in the Arab world. That includes the assortment of political groups rooted in religion and broadly labelled "Islamist".

The gains made by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, in last month's local elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip marked a sober awakening for the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Washington. By winning a majority of council seats in some of the largest constituencies, Hamas has given the mainstream and secular Fatah movement an additional reason to try to delay the legislative elections next month.

I suspect we will not hear calls from Washington to hold the Palestinian poll on time, at least not with the same intensity that the US has approached Lebanon's legislative elections starting on Sunday. Although Hizbollah, Lebanon's Shia Islamist group, is taking part, the vote is expected to hand a majority of parliament seats to the anti-Syrian opposition, an outcome strongly favoured by Washington. There are also worrying signs that US eagerness for political reforms in Egypt, where the largest opposition is the banned but non-violent Muslim Brotherhood, is waning. When Ayman Nour, a liberal Egyptian MP who wanted to run for president, was arrested earlier this year, the US loudly protested, in effect winning his release.

The vigorous American defence of Mr Nour encouraged others, including the Islamists, to step up their criticism of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president. But the subsequent detention of numerous Muslim Brotherhood members - including, in the past week, some of its top leaders - seems to have gone largely unnoticed in Washington.

The Bush administration is understandably torn between a desire to promote democracy and a real fear of political Islam. One way to address this dilemma is to launch a dialogue, starting at least with non-violent Islamists. Ms Cheney argues that armed groups have no role in the political system and must choose between bullets and ballots. Islamists who reject violence, meanwhile, should be held to certain standards and accept red lines such as respect for women's rights. Liberal, secular groups, she says, are at a huge disadvantage: unlike governments and Islamists (who at least at times have had access to the mosque) the liberals have been denied outlets to express their ideas. If people in the Middle East have an honest choice, she maintains, they will not choose the extreme option.

But while Islamists have used the mosque and promoted their cause through a network of social services, they have also born the brunt of government repression. And that has contributed to their radicalisation. Governments, moreover, cannot be encouraged to adopt selective policies, in which Islamists are repressed and liberals are embraced. Nor is there any guarantee that greater opportunity to express liberal views will prove convincing in societies that are still largely religiously conservative.

So it may well be a long time before liberals acceptable to the US are able to challenge Islamists as the largest and most organised opposition in the region. The risk for the US is that failure to show understanding of Islamist demands could wreck its entire democratisation project.

Perhaps a better strategy for Washington would be to speak to the more moderate Islamists. A dialogue could help convince Americans that such groups are not necessarily undemocratic. It would also reassure groups committed to pluralism that their political aspirations would not be blocked.

The British government is considering a more ambitious strategy of direct engagement with Hizbollah and Hamas, recognising that both could soon be participating in governments that will be formed after elections. Political parties based on religion and usually opposed to US policies may be unpleasant - but they are part of the Middle East reality.

The writer is the FT's Middle East editor