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Mon. September 25, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: Dr. Maha Azzam-Nusseibeh
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International Affairs Forum discusses Islamic movements in the Middle East with Dr. Maha Azzam-Nusseibeh, Associate Fellow, Middle East Programme, The Royal Institute of International Affairs. Dr. Azzam was also Head of Programme on Security and Development in Muslim States, Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies and is the author of numerous publications. International Affairs Forum: There is a controversial referendum in Egypt coming up (April 2007) regarding a change to the Constitution with the intent of giving more democratic freedom. Among the articles, one bars the formation of political parties based on religious denomination, something apparently aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood, the primary opposition party there. Your thoughts? Dr. Maha Azzam-Nusseibeh: The issue of revising the Constitution has been an on-going concern in Egypt for some time. Targeting the Muslim Brotherhood has also been an on-going feature of the Egyptian government and it is unlikely that this is going to change. In many ways, the Muslim Brotherhood reflects the only real opposition to the Egyptian government. It is an organized opposition and an opposition that has not resorted to violence. There is no real argument for not allowing it to function legitimately as a political party and there is greater pressure than ever on the Egyptian government to legalize the Muslim Brotherhood and allow it to function freely. Having said that, I think every possible avenue will be pursued in order to deflect from this. This in itself, undermines any democratization process that could take place in Egypt. Unless the Muslim Brotherhood is allowed to function freely in the political arena, the Egyptian electorate is being denied an important political force that in many ways may be representative of large numbers of that society. There is no way of knowing legitimately to what extent they do or don’t have support. They have to be allowed to participate and to be legalized in future elections. The forthcoming referendum is therefore extremely important yet the signs are set for the government denying the Muslim Brotherhood official legitimacy. Although, of course they have de facto legitimacy and credibility on the ground. IA-Forum: If the referendum is passed, what do you think the reaction will be within Egypt? Dr. Azzam-Nusseibeh: I think the reality is that pressure is building up there. I don’t think we’d see an immediate backlash but there are growing expectations in Egypt, and in the Middle East as a whole, for the democratization process to forge forward. There have been some very important changes in many of the countries in the region. But in the same way that governments take a few steps forward they also tend to retract. There will be growing frustration within Egyptian society, particularly within elements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters. This is going to build up pressure over time and contribute to a situation where the door is open for radical alternatives. There’s only so long that people will wait for the electoral process and democratization process to get under way. IA-Forum: What has been the reaction to the referendum in other parts of the Middle East? Dr. Azzam-Nusseibeh: Egypt remains a very important country in the Middle East and a focus of attention of governments and people in the region. So what happens in Egypt does have an impact on the various forces politically in neighboring countries. If Egypt were to proceed on the democratization path more actively and rigorously, it would have an enormous effect on neighboring countries and build up the pressure on them to reform. If the situation in Iraq had stabilized the democratization process there would have challenged regimes regionally. In the same way in Egypt, every step that’s taken towards greater participation and some kind of political reform eventually has its effect regionally because people in neighboring societies will demand similar kinds of reform. IA-Forum: What has made Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas gain popularity in the region and within their societies? Dr. Azzam-Nusseibeh: Historically Islamic groups have been able to capture the imagination of many within their own society because of a number of issues. First and foremost there is the issue of their opposition and criticism of their governments that are seen as corrupt and failing to deliver on many fronts, including political and economic. There is also the fact that many of these Islamic groups, including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, have been able to function as important charitable groups. They have an important social network that has existed over years and won hearts and minds. There are very different levels at which they function throughout society, politically and also in terms of the social sphere. One of the most important aspects and the source of their greatest appeal is their ideological pull, something that is sometimes overlooked in trying to explain the political and economic situation. They offer an ideological alternative. The appeal of religion and the message of Islam continues to attract many in society. It’s appealing on a political level as an alternative and on a cultural level - on the level of values, particularly family values. Islamic parties are not just about the political sphere. Much of their appeal is their moral message and the societal values that they offer which are critical of Western values which are perceived as corrupting and detrimental to family life. So they have an all-around appeal that is both political and social. They might be weak in terms of offering an alternative economic agenda but in the context of Middle Eastern society and Muslim societies in general, where there are many tensions, not just political but social, they are seen as guarantors of Islamic teachings and values. This has provided them with a firm basis of support even among those who are not overly politicized. IA-Forum: Can Arab reform occur without inclusion of Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood? Dr. Azzam-Nusseibeh: I think it can’t happen without the inclusion of these movements. It’s an essential component of the democratization process. Unless Islamic groups that are committed to non-violence are involved in the political process, then there can’t exist a democratic or political process that’s worth its name. These are real forces on the ground which represent an important constituency within society. In order to have a democratic environment, these Islamic groups will have to participate in the political process. Otherwise, what would happen is a very warped and limited democratic process that is ultimately unrepresentative of some of the most important forces in society including the Muslim Brotherhood, for example. IA-Forum: America and Europe have reacted very coolly towards the recent coalition government formed in Palestine between Fatah and Hamas. How should the West respond to the political emergence of groups like Hamas? Dr. Azzam-Nusseibeh: It depends to what extent the United States and Europe are committed to the process of democracy in the region. They have to be true to their own values. If they are really committed to the democratization process in the region then they have to accept forces that may be, in terms of their values or culture, not all together palatable to them. In the past they have supported authoritarian regimes that have done everything to quell democracy. At least what they have now are political parties that are committed to the ballot box. If Western governments continue to oppose and undermine the choices made by the peoples of the region through the ballot box, they will reinforce the notion of the West’s double standards toward the Muslim World. Therefore the United States and Europe have to accept that the democratic process may not throw up ideal partners. But as long as they are committed to the electoral process and committed to non-violence, then Western governments have to accept the results of the ballot box and reach a working relationship with those elected.

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