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Dismay for US as elections benefit Islamists
Dismay for US as elections benefit IslamistsBy Guy Dinmore in Washington Behind the Bush administration’s launch this weekend in Bahrain of a new push for democratic reform in the Middle East lies a fierce internal debate over the perceived risks of elections propelling Islamists rather than preferred secular liberals to power. The as yet unknown outcome of the debate, poli
Saturday, November 12,2005 00:00
by Financial Times

Dismay for US as elections benefit Islamists
By Guy Dinmore in Washington

Behind the Bush administration’s launch this weekend in Bahrain of a new push for democratic reform in the Middle East lies a fierce internal debate over the perceived risks of elections propelling Islamists rather than preferred secular liberals to power.

The as yet unknown outcome of the debate, policy advisers say, will be critical for US policy towards autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, whose government receives large sums in US aid, as well as “rogue states” such as Syria where Islamists represent the only serious opposition to the regime.

“There is a great debate in the administration whether the US will back the opening of political systems that will allow Islamist fundamentalists to participate,” commented Reuel Gerecht of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute.

Mr Gerecht argues it is inevitable that Islamists will come to play leading roles. He says it is better for Islamists, who have more credibility and popular support, to emerge through democratic processes rather than “top-down Islamic revolution”. Continuing to support dictators while slowly nudging them in the direction of giving a political opening to liberals will not work.

But Elizabeth Cheney, who is leading the State Department’s freedom and democracy agenda, argued this week against moving too fast. The US, she said, should not push the Egyptian regime in a direction so quickly that would open the door to the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organised opposition group in the country, before suppressed liberals were strong enough to contest them at the polls.

The challenge for the US, she told reporters before leaving for Bahrain where she will join US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, was to have “an election that’s preceded by a truly free and fair and open system that protects the rights of political parties beyond those like the Islamists who are very well-organised”.

The Forum for the Future conference in Bahrain this weekend, co-hosted by the UK as the rotating head of the Group of Eight industrialised nations, is set to launch two foundations backed by $150m (€128m, £86m) to promote democracy and free market economic reforms. Various governments have contributed, including Egypt and Morocco. Saudi Arabia has been noticeably absent.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have become the focus of the Bush administration’s attempts to change policy away from supporting autocratic regimes that it sees as having unwittingly incubated extremist groups like al-Qaeda.

But the first round of parliamentary elections in Egypt this week did not bode well for the secular liberals.

Ayman Nour, leader of the Ghad party which complained of violations, lost his seat to Mr Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic party. The banned Muslim Brotherhood, which fielded candidates as independents, appeared set to maintain its position as the leading opposition group in parliament.

Daniel Pipes, an academic and anti-Islamist, told a debate at the Nixon Centre think-tank in Washington that it was senseless to distinguish between the Muslim Brotherhood, which renounces violence, and extremist groups. “They are all part of a radical utopian movement,” he said.

Democracy was not an antidote to radicalism and it was better to have Mr Mubarak in power than the Islamists, he argued.

Mr Pipes regretted that President George W. Bush had not blocked the militant group Hamas from contesting Palestinian legislative elections due in January.

Officials said that after another intense internal debate, the official US line – to the dismay of Israel – had shifted to saying it was up to the Palestinians.


Posted in Election Coverage , Political Islam Studies  
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