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EU book conference in Cairo tackles democratisation, Islamist politics

Discussing his latest book on the 'Arab Democratic Wave,' author Alvaro de Vasconcelos and several notable speakers say democracy and Islamist politics aren't necessarily mutually exclusive

Osman El Sharnoubi, Wednesday 28 Mar 2012
EU
Partial screenshot of de Vasconcelos' book-cover, (Photo: ISS website).
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Director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) Alvaro de Vasconcelos has published his latest book, entitled ‘Listening to Unfamiliar Voices: The Arab Democratic Wave,’ which he discussed at a conference in Cairo on 26 March, 2012.

De Vasconcelos also invited a number of speakers to comment on the issue of democratisation in post-revolution Egypt. Speakers included Der Spiegel Cairo correspondent Volkhard Windfuhr; Khaled Hamza, editor-in-chief of the Muslim Brotherhood's English-language website Ikhwanweb; and Egyptian liberal MP Amr El-Shobaky.

The book, says de Vasconcelos, tackles what he sees as a shift towards a post-Western world, in which the revolutionary fight is not for Western values, but for universal ones. He prefers calling the region’s current spate of uprisings and revolutions "the Arab democratic wave," opining that the more common "Arab Spring" has Orientalist connotations, taking after the “Prague Spring” of 1968.

De Vasconcelos discussed the need to adjust European attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims. The challenge, de Vasconcelos says, is to listen to "unfamiliar voices," stressing that Europeans must accept the democratic process that resulted in bringing Islamists to power in legislative councils and governments.

Adamant that Europeans must change their outlook vis-à-vis the Middle East, de Vasconcelos suggested – citing the advice of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi to him – that Europeans shouldn't divide Middle Eastern nations, by supporting one political group over another.

He added that reconciliation and consensus among political forces was essential. "It is very important that we go beyond some European trends that support radical secularism," said de Vasconcelos, adding that he was secular but stressing that secularism does not necessarily entail democracy. He gave the example of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which was very secular, but autocratic nonetheless.

De Vasconcelos criticised the European tendency of valuing stability over democracy. He expressed hope that the EU would embrace a policy in support of democratic consolidation in the Middle East by not taking sides and further dividing political forces, and by helping to solve social and economic problems that are very important for sustaining a democratic system.

Windfuhr, for his part, seemed to have a more cautious approach. When commenting on the book and Arab democratisation, while acknowledging the error of what he quoted the US political scientist Samuel Huntington as terming the "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West, and while harshly criticising the US invasion of Iraq and the faulty democratic model that was established there, Windfuhr insisted there was no such thing as Islamic democracy or Christian democracy.

He asserted that anyone who uses such terms is either ill-informed or has a political agenda, since democracy is universal. He said that advocates of democracies based on confession, religion, ethnicity or tribalism "aren't developed enough to be called partners for a peaceful and new democratic process."

Addressing the same issue, El-Shobaki voiced his appreciation of de Vasconcelos' rejection of cultural interpretations that Arab and Muslim societies are inherently unable to democratise.

He echoed Winduhr's concerns, saying that even though he supported dialogue and engagement between Islamists and others, it remained yet to be seen what they will do in Egypt now that they have a parliamentary majority.

However, El-Shobaki said that problems abound in the political arena, noting that Egypt, like others, must constitute a strong and effective political alliance if it were to prevent the army from intervening in the political scene – something he believes isn't happening in Egypt.

He mentioned Egypt's current debate regarding the constituent assembly, in which the Islamist majority in parliament is accused of monopolising the process of choosing assembly members, allowing it to be dominated by Islamists, whether from the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist Nour Party.

This, El-Shobaki believes, isn't a good sign for Egyptian democratisation, yet he expressed hope that the process would continue regardless of the difficulties.

Hamza on the other hand, stressed on the constant fearmongering against Islamists, agreeing with de Vasconcelos that Europeans must revise their outlook and change their usual non-responsiveness or slow reactions to government moves against Islamists, such as has happened previously in Algeria (the Islamic Salvation Front), Tunisia (Ennahda) and Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood).

As for the relationship between Islam and democracy, Hamza believes it is now clear that there is no contradiction between the two. The debate now is not dogmatic, he said, that democracy is procedurally sound, agreeing that it was the best way to govern – but shouldn't be addressed as an ideological doctrine.

He mentioned that scholars, such as the Egyptian Youssef El-Qaradawi and Tunisia's Rached Ghannouchi, had produced enough material dealing with the question that it was no longer problematic.

De Vasconcelos ended the conference by asking if it was "possible to reach a common understanding between a Muslim Brotherhood leader and a liberal, modernist, secular politician," referring to El-Shobaki and Hamza, to the laughter of the audience. He continued by saying that he strongly believed that a consensus between secular democratic parties and Islamist ones was crucial for democracy to work in the Middle East.

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