BEIRUT: The Carnegie Middle East Center held a seminar on Monday on the West’s need to engage with Islamist parties in the Arab world. Associate Scholar of the center Amel Boubekeur and Rachid Ouaissa, professor of Middle East politics at the Phillips Université Marburg in Germany, discussed the issues of legitimacy and co-option of working with Islamist groups in the Arab world, including Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Libya.
In particular, the two academics spoke on how foreign states can best engage with these Islamic parties. “It’s not about promoting Islamists as an independent or insulated part of the political landscape,” Amel said about the need for the US and the European Union not to limit their scope of engagement with individual political parties. “Islamists may have an impact on reforms only if they are integrated in the whole process,” he added.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration used a policy of engagement with Islamist political parties to try and promote political outlets for Islamic ideologies and limit violence.
This policy often came into conflict with the secular government the administration was supporting.
Both speakers made the case that if these Islamist groups are approached correctly, many of them can join with foreign policy goals of democratization. Boubekeur added that the ability of Islamist parties to participate in their country’s government can also serve as a test for political freedom in that country. It reflects the “political opportunities that those regimes are promoting,” she said.
Despite some policies of engagement, Islamist political parties are viewed very critically by other countries for alleged ties to violent Islamist organizations. The inclusion or exclusion of a political party on a country’s “terrorism list” draws international attention and speculation.
The differing policies of engagement regarding Islamist parties Hamas and Hizbullah has recently drawn this kind of attention. The European Union held its first high-level talks with Hizbullah’s civilian officials for the first time in June, while the United States still includes all arms of Hizbullah a terrorist organization.
Hamas on the other hand, has been encouraged by the Quartet of Russia, US, EU and the UN to be recognized and attend the Palestine-Israel peace talks only if they meet specific conditions set out by the those governments.
Ousissa drew attention to the influence of a pan-Islamic structure on the political parties, suggesting that the stronger the political party’s ties to this “mother organization” the more traditionally ideological and less willing to engage with the party they will be.
He added that the longer an Islamist political party is embroiled in conflict the more reticent it is to engage with the West and partnership schemes like EU’s Barcelona program.
“The more a country is involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the more the Islamist parties may be skeptical and suspicious toward the West and the Barcelona program,”Ousissa said.