Muslim Parties Must be Included in Arab Spring Reform

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The leaders of the protests in Sudan and Algeria are aware that ending their old regimes does not mean the end of political Islam. But they are not at all clear about the necessity of inclusiveness in state building. A group of demonstrators attacked the meeting of the (Islamic) Popular Congress Party in Khartoum on April 28. This incident is not the start of a serious trend of chaos but a reminder that cracks within the opposition groups could get worse. The army intervened to prevent escalation: 64 individuals were injured.

Staunch secularist reformers might wish to exclude conservative Muslim groups from participating in the transitions. The April 28 attack provides an added pretext for the military to hold on to power. Respecting minority opinion is at the heart of building democracy.

Maybe it is too early for the protestors to focus on their own differences when they are struggling to resolve differences with the military. The reluctance of the Sudanese and Algerian militaries to transfer power to civilians—after the abdication of the two former presidents—is not justified, but it is explainable. The military rationalizes its reluctance as a legitimate position of “respect for the constitution.” However, the military is really most interested in self-preservation. In Sudan, the army is holding onto power by attempting to save a failing Islamic regime; in Algeria, meanwhile, the military is trying to save the regime by suppressing political Islam in the name of democracy.

Regional opinion impacts the dynamics of this second Arab Spring. The role of political Islam in state building divides Arab opinion makers. In the Gulf, the Saudi Arabia-leaning press tends to be highly suspicious of Arab Spring events. It paints the uprisings as regrettable developments that open doors for “evil Jihadi Islamists.”

According to Fares Bin Hizam, a Saudi writer for the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is deeply rooted in Sudan. Hizam is convinced that the MB is now in hiding to avoid confrontation with the street protestors. The Al Hayat columnist claims that, once the situation calms down, Islamist groups will reemerge to regain influence in society. The MB is “spread throughout the state institutions” and entrenched in society, he says. He concludes that the Arab Spring is a destabilizing process.

Hizam is accurate in his observations but not in his inferences. The Brotherhood is a powerful grassroots movement. But the reformers’ objective is not to eliminate them or to keep them dormant. The real challenge is how to manage the Arab Spring peacefully and inclusively.

Sudan is a failed state. The Sudanese have seen what the MB’s sharia law yields, and they know how toxic the Islamic State is. They should be supported in their rebellion, not discouraged by external observers who oppose reform in favor of the status quo.

From a different perspective, the Algerian columnist Abdennour Toumi makes a case for an inclusive policy in rebuilding society after regime change. Toumi argues that moderate Islam, even the Mujahid (freedom fighter), can contribute to democracy building. In the Arab Daily News Toumi reflects on the recent death of Abbassi Madani, a Muslim Algerian scholar and activist, who was imprisoned in the 1990s and fled to Qatar for safety. Madani started the FIS, the Algerian Islamic Party, which the government banned after it split into different branches and became “militant.” Toumi believes that Madani’s vision is needed at the table of reform today. He argues that the Algerian regime unfairly

“accused him of being a religious zealot, an opportunist and even a foreign agent, but his dedication to his country as a Moujahid (freedom fighter) and to the cause of Islamic democracy like the Christian democracy in Europe [ was missed]…Algerians today are split on how to mourn him, as a moderate Islamist who believed in democracy, or a leader who could have become the first Islamist democratically elected president in the Arab countries…”

Islamic politics is a vital part of Arab culture. Since the 1980s, Arab societies have become more religious despite the failure of Islamic regimes to deliver solid benefits to society. Political Islam must not be trivialized by being associated with groups that do not carry Islam’s positive message of peace and equality. What makes political Islamists resilient is their ability to mobilize public opinion against the injustice of stagnant Arab regimes and the self-serving policies of external powers.

In Sudan and Algeria, protestors are calling for a pluralist society. In the name of pluralism, all groups must be respected, listened to, and given a chance to participate in serving the state. The more the protestors are united, the better they can negotiate the transfer of power from the military. Attacking the Popular Congress Party in Sudan will only serve to bolster its followers. By provoking the Muslim Brotherhood, secular reformers run the risk of turning Islamists into martyrs. Victimization energizes Islamists.

The moment the armies of Sudan and Algeria agree to transfer or share power, the protestors will have to find common ground for the new democracy. And that will require coming to terms with political Islam as well.