Political Islam: Ready for Engagement?

Emad El-Din Shahin

The voluminous literature on reform and democratization in the Middle East region reveals a number of facts: a main obstacle to reform is the incumbent regimes that have been trying to resist and circumvent genuine democratic transformations; political reform cannot be credible without integrating moderate Islamists in the process; and external actors (mainly the US and the EU) have not yet formulated a coherent approach to reform that could simultaneously achieve stability and democracy in the region. This paper explores the possibilities and implications of a European engagement with moderate Islamists on democracy promotion in the region. It argues that the EU approach to political reform in the Middle East region needs to be enhanced and linked to realities on the ground. Political reform cannot be effective without the integration of non-violent Islamic groups in a gradual, multifaceted process. It should be highlighted that the process of engagement is a risky one for both the EU and the Islamists, yet both stand to gain from a systematic dialogue on democracy. To reduce the risks, the engagement with political Islam should come within a broader EU strategy for democracy promotion in the region. In fact, what the Islamists would expect from Europe is to maintain a
consistent and assertive stand on political reforms that would allow for a genuine representation of the popular will through peaceful means.
In this regard, a number of questions seem pertinent. Does the EU really need to engage political Islam in democratic reforms? Is political Islam ready for engagement and will it be willing to engage? How can an engagement policy be formulated on the basis of plausible implementation with minimal risks to the interests of the parties involved?

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