Political change is coming to the Middle East . Countries that slumbered for decades with no sign of political evolution are finally awakening. The Egyptian National Assembly has approved a constitutional amendment to allow direct, competitive presidential elections—a first in that country’s history. Syrian troops left Lebanon when mass demonstrations signaled the people’s discontent with their lack of power under the status quo. Iraq elected a government (albeit as a result of U.S. occupation rather than a renewal of Iraqi politics). Political competition has become possible in Palestine and will undoubtedly increase ahead of this summer’s elections for the Legislative Council. Even Saudi Arabia has held elections—for powerless local councils, to be sure, and without the participation of women, but elections nevertheless. Only a few Arab countries—most notably Tunisia , Libya , Syria , and the United Arab Emirates —appear immune to the stirrings of change.

There are many reasons for this budding political activism, including the sheer magnitude of socioeconomic transformation in recent decades, which leaves static governments increasingly out of sync with their rapidly changing societies ; satellite television, which has deprived Arab governments of their traditional monopoly over information ; and the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and the death of Yasir Arafat. But the Bush administration certainly contributed to this political ferment, in ways both intentional and not. By announcing his determination to bring democracy to the Arab world, the president triggered a lively debate about democracy in the region’s press—a debate that started by questioning Bush’s credibility and denouncing democracy promotion as a thinly veiled justification for the Iraq war but that soon admitted that Bush’s hypocrisy did not excuse the absence of democracy in the Middle East.

Most Arab governments, faced with the Bush administration’s rhetorical onslaught, thought it prudent to respond by introducing some mild reforms that would not threaten their power, hoping to avoid real pressure to change. Liberal reformers are now grudgingly admitting that perhaps U.S. pressure is not a bad thing. The just-published 2004 U.N. Arab Human Development Report, for example, concludes that even policies as fundamentally flawed as the intervention in Iraq and as hypocritical as Washington ’s criticism of the autocracies it supported for decades might, in the end, encourage democracy. Even the region’s Islamist movements are debating the merits of representative government.

A major obstacle to the continuation of this process, however, is the fact that liberal reformers, upon whom many Americans place their hopes for democratization, are mostly intellectuals without organized constituencies. There is no equivalent of the broad-based Civic Forum that made the transition to democracy in the former Czechoslovakia such a success. In Egypt , for example, the kifaya (enough) movement, which has attracted a lot of attention by holding demonstrations in defiance of a government ban, appears incapable of mustering more than a few hundred people to each of its rallies. Throughout the region, it is the Islamists, not the democrats, who have the organized constituencies. That’s why religious Shia parties won the largest share of the vote in Iraq , and that’s why free elections would give significant power to religious parties in other countries as well. In Morocco , Jordan , and Algeria , for example, religious parties that have been allowed to register and compete in the elections have shown that they have a substantial following.

This means that, for the United States to further encourage democratization, it will have to cultivate the Islamists. Of course, liberal organizations also deserve support. But, unless Islamist movements become convinced that it is in their interests to advocate democracy in their countries and participate in a democratic process—even if the process does not produce an Islamist state—democratic transitions will be extremely difficult. Despite the mutual dislike and suspicion between Washington and Islamists, the United States must recognize the legitimacy of their participation and defend their rights as much as it does those of liberals.

Islamist organizations—that is, organizations that appeal to the religious values and social conservatism of the Arab public in their call for political reform—are the key to democratization in the Arab world. They have considerable support, as measured by the votes they receive when they are allowed to participate in elections, the turnout at their demonstrations, and the audiences attracted by radical preachers during sermons at mosques. They are also well-organized, maintaining strong networks of educational, health, and charitable programs.

Clearly, such participation and popularity suggests these organizations would be expected to play—and ought to play—a central role in Arab democracy. Indeed, there is little alternative : It would take considerable repression to prevent such groups from participating in a democratic political process, and that repression would in turn undermine the possibility of democracy itself. Furthermore, the post-cold war experience in Eastern Europe showed that a crucial element for the success of democratic transitions is the willingness of old, undemocratic parties to reinvent themselves as new organizations capable of becoming part of the new politics. The success of old communist parties in transforming themselves into new democratic actors was crucial in establishing political competition in Eastern Europe . New parties appear by the dozen in all democratic transitions around the globe, but they rarely survive. One need only look at Iraq to see that this dynamic also holds true in the Middle East today. The former exile movements and many religious parties are all represented in parliament, whereas most of the roughly 200 parties formed after Saddam’s fall hardly received any votes, despite the considerable help they received from the U.S. government and democracy-promotion organizations.

The Bush administration’s answer to the challenge of political Islam has been to promote moderate Islamist organizations and moderate interpretations of the religion. The Muslim World Outreach Policy Coordinating Committee—set up in July 2004 by the National Security Council to improve communication with Islamic organizations and better the image of the United States in the Muslim world—is an important part of this strategy. But trying to promote moderate interpretations of Islam is probably futile and certainly risky. Remember that, when the Iranians took over the embassy in Tehran , conventional wisdom was that the Shia were the most dangerous Muslims, whereas Wahhabis were thought to be conservative socially but rather apolitical. Obviously, that view has changed in recent years. Nevertheless, the idea has taken hold in some parts of the administration that Sufism represents a benign, moderate form of Islam that should be encouraged. It is doubtful that most people making the argument understand the roots of Sufism and why it has spread in some regions but not in others. It is even more doubtful that they have given much thought to the resentment that favoring one sect over another could cause in the Muslim world. (Imagine the reaction in this country if secular France , concerned about radical evangelical groups in the United States , decided to support moderate churches.)

The challenge that Islamist organizations pose to democracy cannot be met by befriending moderate but marginally important groups. It can only be met by dealing with the mainstream, powerful organizations that will determine the future of Middle East politics. A good place to start is with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the first and still the most influential modern Islamist movement. Much of the radical thinking about the moral corruption of Arab states and the need for dramatic change has come from the Muslim Brotherhood. Beginning in the 1920s, Muslim Brothers were the first to denounce what they saw as the moral decadence to which Arab societies had sunk as a result of abandoning the precepts of Islam, and they were the first to call for the building of Islamic states. Egyptian Muslim Brothers, often acting as teachers, have been at the root of radical Islam’s growth in the Middle East . Even the militancy and missionary zeal manifested in recent decades by Wahhabis is attributed by scholars and analysts to the influence of the Muslim Brothers. But the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood long ago renounced violence and is seeking to become a legal political party. Denied the right to do so—Egypt bans parties based on religion—Muslim Brothers have still sought to peacefully participate in Egyptian politics since the early ’80s, running for office on the tickets of other political parties or as independents. Other Islamist organizations, such as Muslim Brothers in other countries, are also debating whether to embrace the democratic process.

Still, any opening toward Islamist groups raises the vexing problem of their commitment to nonviolence and to democracy. There are no simple answers to these issues. Saying that the United States will deal only with organizations that have renounced violence and thus do not have an armed wing is tempting but unrealistic. If Washington had taken such a position in Iraq , there would have been no elections—after all, the Kurdish parties and the Shia religious parties that won the elections all have armed militias. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan control the peshmerga, which includes as many as 80,000 fighters. The two major parties in the Shia coalition, Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq , probably have an additional 10,000, if not more. If Washington wants elections in Lebanon this month, as it says it does, it has to accept that Hezbollah will run without disarming. If it wants elections in Palestine in July, it has to accept that Hamas will still have an armed wing. It also has no choice but to accept that there can be no certainty about any party’s long-term commitment to democracy. Uncertainty is an inherent part of any transition.

Islamist parties already participate in some Arab countries, and they are not proving less—or more—democratic than other organizations. But there is ample evidence that participation in an electoral process forces any party, regardless of ideology, to moderate its position if it wants to attract voters in large numbers and avoid a backlash. In Turkey, the Islamist party that now governs the country and aspires to lead it into the European Union started with radical propensities in the mid-’90s. It won enough votes to form the government, but it also frightened the secular army enough to seek a court’s disbarment of the ruling party in 1997. That experience spurred the rise of the moderates within the Islamist movement, leading to their victory, as the reorganized Justice and Development Party, in 2002.

Talking to the Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream Islamist organizations should be a central, ongoing task for American diplomats in the Middle East . We need to understand these organizations as well as we possibly can. It is only when we understand them better that we can decide whether they have a legitimate role to play in a democracy or whether their ultimate goals are dangerous. Moreover, such engagement would strengthen the hand of the more moderate, democratic Islamists who favor reform. It would do more to restore the tarnished image of the United States in the Arab world than any public diplomacy initiative launched so far. Of course, engagement won’t guarantee the success of democracy in the Middle East , but not engaging will guarantee its failure.

Marina Ottaway is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Source : The New Republic, June 6 & 13, 2005, Volume 232, Issues 4,716 & 4,717