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Arab Islamists, their internal democracy
Arab Islamists, their internal democracy
Here, Arab Islamic movements and parties can be divided into two main categories: the first enjoys a quasi-ideal internal democratic atmosphere specially when compared with some liberal and leftist Arab parties. "Internal" democracy isn’t restricted here to its formal framework; it is even a key determiner in all interactions of the party and the underlying values of responsibility, accountability and transparency.
Saturday, August 2,2008 18:49
by Khalil Al Anani* Al-Hayat
Although many Arab and Islamic parties and movements have settled the juristic and ideological debate over the attitude towards democracy as a procedural idea and a political value, there is still a huge gap between these movements and parties" understanding of the criteria of democracy and applying these criteria inside their organizational and activist structure.
 
As democracy has become a main asset in increasing Islamists" gains in social and political levels, there are still some who are still skeptical about it as a more useful method in running internal disputes, let alone adopting it as an instrument for organizational promotion against domineering values of loyalty and obedience and sanctifying leadership and religionizing organizational relations.
 
Here, Arab Islamic movements and parties can be divided into two main categories: the first enjoys a quasi-ideal internal democratic atmosphere specially when compared with some liberal and leftist Arab parties. "Internal" democracy isn"t restricted here to its formal framework; it is even a key determiner in all interactions of the party and the underlying values of responsibility, accountability and transparency.
 
The second category resorts to democracy, not only as a value in itself. It resorts to it also to control internal conflicts and to run the organization in a seemingly "ceiled" democracy that targets a specific framework without having its values and practices rooted in mindsets of the Islamic cadre.
 
The first category includes movements and parties like Moroccan Justice and Development party (PJD) which may be considered an important role-model in applying criteria of democracy on its internal structure. The PJD holds periodical by-elections on levels of (National conference, national council, Secretary-General and committees). The PJD has recently witnessed a key shift when the basic system of the party was amended in its sixth congress- held days ago- making it more democratic and flexible than before. Powers of the executive bodies have increased against those of the Secretary-General and his deputies. Also increased were the quotas specified for the youth and women in higher organizational levels, let alone adopting a decentralized method in running the party affairs.  The party held a week ago its by-elections and Abdelilah Benkiran was elected a Secretary-General while Saad Eddine Othmani was elected a head of the PJD"s National Council.
 
The first category may include also Bahraini Al Wefaq Islamic movement. Founded in 2001, the movement enjoys an amount of internal democracy that distinguishes it from other Islamic movements, specially Shiite ones. This is due to its internal regulation that has a flexible and clear balance in the powers of between the general congress and advisory body of Al Wefaq.
 
While the second category includes cases of Jordan , Egypt and Algeria . Islamic movements in these countries resort to democracy as a part of internal conflict. By-elections seem to be an effective tool for settling conflicts among differing wings of the movement.
 
In Jordan for example, the group"s Advisory Body (Shura Council) has spontaneously dissolved itself following the group"s weak performance in last November"s legislative elections. Although the dissolution decision was fair and reflected a feeling of responsibility, it was a result of the fierce conflict between the hawkish and dovish wings inside the group. The former blamed the latter for this historical defeat ( winning 6 seats out of 110 ) in these elections. This made its leaders, who were seeking a calming down and a conciliation with the regime and official establishments, to offer resignations and dissolve their council. This consequently raised stakes of the conservatives in the following elections in the group"s  Shura Council and in its executive office.
 
Democracy appears here to be closer to be a tool for "internal" punishment, than a tool that tackles differences inside the Jordanian Islamic movement. What adds fuel to fire is that this punishment doesn"t target only some wings, but it also targets the society in general and the weight of the movement.
 
On the one hand, repercussions of this internal conflict pushed Hammam Saeed to the lead the movement top, in the first of such a step since the movement was established in 1946. Saeed as well-known for his hawkish attitudes and weak flexibility, at least when compared his predecessor Salem Falahat. This measure seemed to be an implicit " punishment " that the movement"s grassroots practiced against the regime. The grassroots gave leadership to a hawkish leader considering him more useful in orchestrating the relation with the regime after the dovish leaders failed and after the regime fished for their repeated mistakes. The crisis snowballed and dovish and centrist leaders boycotted more than once meetings of the group"s executive office due to postponing opening an internal investigation with the Secretary-General of the Islamic Action Front, Zaki Bin Arshid, accusing him of monopolizing taking decisions taking and ignoring views of the movement"s executive office. The "punitive" democracy seems to be decreasing- not increasing- the movement"s position, definitely harming the movement"s image and relations with the regime and society.
 
In Egypt, democracy inside Muslim Brotherhood group seems to be a fairy-tale, not only because of lacking a balance between the various organizational levels in the movement, in terms of powers, but also due to lacking the culture of democracy itself inside the Muslim Brotherhood ranks.
 
The group seemingly knows only from democracy the method of "elections. The group"s by-law stipulates that by-elections are held in all organizational levels (Area, district, administrative office, general Advisory Body, Executive Office). As for other branches of democracy: values and criteria of fairness, transparency, accountability and efficiency, they are still clashing with mobilizing values like obedience and loyalty. This democratic stagnation inside the Muslim Brotherhood is closely related to two fundamental factors, the first of which is lacking a practice of democracy inside all political action establishments all over Egypt . This implicitly means weakness in the democratic culture socially and politically. The second factor is the pressure of the intricate legal status that the group has been witnessing for more than half a century.
 
However, this does not reduce the group leaders" responsibility for not applying rules of a democratic practice inside the Muslim Brotherhood mindset, and others alleged downplaying the effect of weakness or lack of this practice on the group"s general situation and weight inside the society.
Thus, the strategic decisions that the group takes both internally or in its relation with the regime don"t enjoy the required legitimacy, because of the lack of the supposed democratic quorum and because of lacking a mechanism for knowing views of all members of the group over it. This has recently happened when the group held "by-lections" to fill some vacant seats in " the Executive Office" in the group. The by-elections were held through an obscure mechanism that did not convince many that the process of picking out new members was fair and transparent. The group"s Chairman even monopolized the decision of announcing what happened away from any internal accountability. The Muslim Brotherhood grassroots hears about these by-elections only through the media like other people outside the group.
 
In Algeria , the Movement of Society of Peace (HMS) hasn"t seemingly benefited from the long experience long established by the Algerian moderate Islamic movement founded by late sheikh Mahfouz Nahnah. It entered a bitter internal conflict on positions. The movement seems to be currently self-divided between current president Abu Garah Sultani wing movements, and the wing of his deputy Abd Al-Majid manasrah. This conflict reached its peak while the movement"s fourth conference was held last April to choose a chairman of the movement. This difference between both rivals Abu Gara and Manasrah was about to cause a schism in the movement.
 
The movement"s internal system is marked by stagnation and inflexibility in terms of the relation between various organizational levels ( the national congress, the national advisory council, executive office and state offices).
 
Generally speaking, democracy seems- in both categories- to be important both as an important tool in running the movement and developing its political and organizational performance (the first category), or as a reference framework which is sought for internal settling of scores and settling internal conflicts without affecting the structure of the movement (the second category).
 
In brief, although the democratic practice is recent inside Islamic movements and parties in general, but it is still better when compared with other political entities mostly claiming that they are democratic in speech not in deed.
 
*"Visiting Fellow at Brookings Institution".

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