The United States would be “satisfied” if Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood won November’s elections, the Obama administration’s head official for Middle East transitions said today.
“I think the answer is yes, I think we will be satisfied, if it is a free and fair election,” said William Taylor, the newly appointed special coordinator for regional transitions.
“What we need to do is judge people and parties and movements on what they do, not what they’re called,” he told a forum at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. The State Department funds training for Islamist parties as well as liberal democratic groups, Taylor acknowledged this week.
The Arab Spring’s democratic momentum would give Islamist groups an incentive to embrace constitutional politics, he suggested, while undermining the appeal of violent jihadist groups.
“This movement toward democracy has the ability to repudiate the terrorist narrative,” Taylor said.
The Obama administration shares the concern of many analysts that any appearance of hostility to Islamist parties or hints of political engineering to keep them from office will rebound in their favor.
“Political Islam will not go away because the West ignores it; Islamist parties will, however, become more moderate if they are included in government,” says Marwan Muasher, the former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan.
Recent developments confirm “an accelerated Islamization of the Arab world,” writes historian Benny Morris – a regional trend “far different from what many Western idealists anticipated when they coined the term ‘Arab Spring.’”
But “Islamists are unlikely to take over new governments in the Arab world, and seeking to prevent Islamist parties from participating in governance would actually be counterproductive,” Muasher argues. “Countries in transition have no choice but to open up the political system.”
Another leading official this week rejected suggestions that the administration should counter illiberal trends in Egypt’s transition and give incentives for democratic reform by adding conditionalities to US aid.
“Now is not the time to add further uncertainty to the region or disrupt our relationship with Egypt,” said Andrew Shapiro, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs. “Conditioning assistance risks putting our relations with Egypt in a contentious place at the worst possible moment,” he told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The administration this week defended its non-partisan approach to democracy assistance, explaining why political party training is made available to groups from across the political spectrum, including Islamist parties.
“We provide training for political parties to help them use polling, for example, or help them do constituent services or preparation – election preparations, these kinds of things,” said Taylor, the new transitions coordinator.
“So NDI, for example, the National Democratic Institute, they have trainings, and they will invite a range of parties, including – all across, let’s just say all across the spectrum,” he said. “Sometimes, Islamist parties show up; sometimes they don’t. But that’s – it has been provided on a nonpartisan basis, not to individual parties.”
While some analysts – and former Islamist activists - insist that while Islam and democracy are compatible, Islamism is an inherently anti-democratic ideology. But the administration appears inclined to give the Brotherhood the benefit of any doubt.
“As these Arab countries are going into political transitions, a number of new people are coming into the political process, many of whom describe themselves as Islamists. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are anti-democratic.” Shapiro said. “We need to support an effort and structure to channel this energy that’s coming into the political process into an understanding of what democracy means and the benefits of it, and our training on the ground is designed to do so.”
But the West’s democracies have a moral responsibility and a strategic interest in supporting the region’s “movements of modernity and enlightenment,” writes Raghida Dergham, Al Hayat’s senior diplomatic correspondent.
“The most important element on the road to change in the Arab region resides in constitutions,” she contends,” and this is why Islamist political parties want to rush to hold parliamentary elections which they would win, leading them to hold the keys to the country’s constitution.”
It is not surprising that Islamist parties are ascendant as secular rivals have insufficient time to organize and lack the necessary funding.
“This is at a time when Islamist parties are receiving financial support not just from individuals who believe in them, but also from governments in the region that have decided to support extremist and moderate Islamist movements with funds and sometimes even with arms,” she argues.
NDI is a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.