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Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002) 116-122

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Middle East Studies After 9/11

An Exit from Arab Autocracy

Vickie Langohr

In the aftermath of September 11, Arab politics have come under unprecedented scrutiny in the West. As the unremittingly authoritarian nature of Arab regimes has come into ever sharper focus, this lack of democracy is decried as a cause of anti-regime and anti-Western violence at the same time that it is depicted as the only reliable short-term shield against the exact same phenomena. Arab autocracies, it is argued, encourage violence domestically by blocking peaceful change, and export violence by using state-controlled media to deflect demands for accountability with propaganda against the United States, Jews, or the West. These same autocracies, however, must be supported because they are all that blocks the rise to power of even more viciously authoritarian and illiberal groups. Since the Arab world lacks popular ultranationalist movements, the most likely candidates for the category of illiberal challengers are Islamist parties, whose presumed commitment to Islamic law (shari'a) renders them debatable defenders of democracy at best.

Scholars unwilling to write the Arab world off as congenitally inhospitable to democracy generally advocate one of two gradual paths for the exit from autocracy. Both start from the same assumption—that if free elections were held today, Islamist parties would win, either because many Arab voters support them or because opponents would be inadequately mobilized to defeat them. The first proposed exit from this situation is an economic one—delay meaningful democratization until economic development creates middle classes, widely thought to foster liberal democracy and hinder extremism. The second approach focuses [End Page 116] on politics. Instead of opening the floodgates of political competition all at once, the offer of gradual inclusion in the political system should be used to induce Islamists to moderate their more objectionable, illiberal goals—or at least to secure a commitment that their goals will not be implemented extraconstitutionally. Inclusion breeds moderation, we are told, and Islamists who reject undemocratic behavior in exchange for inclusion will be transformed, like Western Europe's postwar communists, from destabilizing antisystem parties into accepted representatives of a legitimate ideological trend.

The suggestion that substantive democratization be put off until middle classes develop is of limited usefulness. On the one hand, its assumption that middle classes do not support Islamists is belied by Islamist successes in the elections within middle-class professional syndicates; on the other, the growth of strong middle classes in several Arab countries has not made regimes any more willing to devolve power democratically. Western pressure is needed to push Arab autocracies toward a phased-in democratic opening designed to strengthen opposition parties.

The Current State of Arab Islamist Politics

Islamist parties have been allowed to organize and compete openly in Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, and Yemen. Their participation has been much more heavily restricted in North Africa. In Algeria, the military staged a coup in January 1992 to forestall the all-but-certain victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in the second round of legislative elections. The FIS remains banned, though two other Islamist parties have been permitted to contest elections. In Tunisia, when the Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique (MTI) announced plans to form a political party in 1981, its leaders were summarily imprisoned. A brief 1986 amnesty was followed by further repression, and after members running as independents captured 14 percent of the vote in the 1989 parliamentary elections, the MTI's leader went into exile and hundreds of members were tried before military tribunals. 1 Repression of the MTI continues apace, with Human Rights Watch reporting in 2002 that MTI members, convicted almost exclusively for participation in "unauthorized" peaceful activities and not for violence, account for most of Tunisia's political prisoners. 2 The Egyptian government has been somewhat more lenient with the Muslim Brotherhood, allowing Brothers to run for parliament as independents while doing all it can to undermine their chances, often through police repression.

The histories and social origins of the Islamist parties that have been...


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pp. 116-122
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