The new Arab revolt

What if democracy brings Islamist government? And other key questions.

One of my favourite lines from David Gardner's Last Chance: the Middle East in the Balance is the following: "Liberals tend to be coteries who like whisky and the west but the masses incline towards men in beards" – or "men in turbans", as Gardner, now the FT's international affairs editor, puts it elsewhere in the book.

This has been the dilemma at the heart of western attitudes towards the Middle East for decades now. Should we support friendly autocrats who oversaw regimes with secular veneers or condemn their repression and give our backing to pro-democracy groups? That we have done the former is to a large extent because our governments have feared the consequences of the dictators' departure. Whisky-drinking liberals are small elites that are unlikely to be elected. Men in turbans, however, are popular . . . but we don't like the idea of dealing with any more of them than we have to.

It is unclear what a democratic, post-Mubarak Egypt might look like (Tunisia, where secularism is entrenched and the Islamist opposition insignificant, is no guide). Nor can we be certain of the stripe of government that would be elected in other Arab states that were granted the luxury of a free vote.

But it is worth asking a few questions about the possible results, both in Egypt and in any other states in the Middle East that may follow suit.

1. If we – by which I mean the governments of Europe and North America – come out in favour of popular uprisings that sweep away dictators, how do we justify our past (indeed, our very recent) support for autocrats such as Mubarak?

2. If we are in favour of democracy in Tunisia and Egypt, how does this fit with our continuing friendly relations with the absolute monarchies of the Gulf?

3. We say that we wish the voices of the people to be heard. But will we want to listen to what they say? Or does this only apply if Egypt, say, elects an internationally respected moderate, such as Mohamed ElBaradei? (And already some are warning about him – see this Jerusalem Post article.)

4. If we say that only a democratic vote confers legitimacy on a government, why did the US and the EU refuse to recognise Hamas's election victory in 2006?

5. How will we deal with, and how will we view, the likes of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi? Condemned as a "preacher of hate", he was not allowed into the UK in 2008. On the other hand, he has been condemned by jihadist groups for denouncing the 9/11 attacks and al-Qaeda. Foreign Policy magazine and others regularly refer to him as "probably the single most influential Sunni Islamist figure in the Arab world".

He has turned down the position of Supreme Guide to the Muslim Brotherhood at least once. Figures such as al-Qaradawi will have enormous importance in Arab democracies. Will we engage with them – or will we continue to ban them from our countries?

It may be that, contrary to the opinion of David Gardner and many other long-time observers of the Middle East, liberals turn out not to be just small coteries, but to have much wider appeal. If so – and it sounds like wishful thinking to me – they'd better keep quiet about the whisky-drinking.

If, however, the democratic transitions that we are now so delighted to see end up bringing Islamist-leaning governments to power, how will we react? At the very least, such administrations are not the most naturally ardent defenders of western notions of sexual freedom and equality. Will our first act be to castigate them for that?

In the light of ongoing developments, my recent posting on a new book on the Muslim Brotherhood was more timely than I could have realised. My series last summer on Rethinking Islamism is also relevant. I am aware – how could I not have been! – that it proved distinctly unpopular with many readers. But here is my problem with some of the comments. I closed Rethinking Islamism IV last June by quoting the highly regarded scholar Olivier Roy:

If democratisation means more nationalism and more sharia, this is far from what the western promoters of democratisation envisaged. But this problem must be faced head-on by saying: there is no way not to engage the Islamists. There is no alternative. We in the west have to make a choice between [Turkey's Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and the Taliban. And if we don't choose Erdoğan, we'll get the Taliban.

The first comment after the piece was published began: "I totally reject both Erdogan and Taliban . . . It is outright insane to wish to dally with Islamists to any degree."

But this is not about "wishing" to "dally" with anyone. This is about the possible consequences of democracy in the region, which on any reasonable analysis includes the likelihood of Islamist-leaning governments coming to power. Are we ready to deal with them, to be open to dialogue and understanding? Or will our minds be so clouded by fear of the word "Islamist" that we cannot even recognise Turkey's AKP government as a moderate administration with which we should be glad to do business?

If so, it will be us who put a dampener on the euphoria accompanying the removal of the tyrants. Not to mention that we'll have shown that "democracy" to us means the freedom to choose your own government – so long as we approve of it.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change