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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?

Political Islam and European Foreign Policy

POLITICAL ISLAM AND THE EUROPEAN NEIGHBOURHOOD POLICY

MICHAEL EMERSON

RICHARD YOUNGS

Since 2001 and the international events that ensued the nature of the relationship between the West and political Islam has become a definingissue for foreign policy. In recent years a considerable amount of research and analysis has been undertaken on the issue of political Islam. This has helped to correct some of the simplistic and alarmist assumptions previously held in the West about the nature of Islamist values and intentions. Parallel to this, the European Union (EU) has developed a number of policy initiatives primarily the European Neighbourhood Policy(ENP) that in principle commit to dialogue and deeper engagement all(non-violent) political actors and civil society organisations within Arab countries. Yet many analysts and policy-makers now complain of a certain a trophy in both conceptual debate and policy development. It has been established that political Islam is a changing landscape, deeply affected bya range of circumstances, but debate often seems to have stuck on the simplistic question of ‘are Islamists democratic?’ Many independent analysts have nevertheless advocated engagement with Islamists, but theactual rapprochement between Western governments and Islamist organisations remains limited .

Political Islam in Egypt

Emad El-Din Shahin
The landscape of political Islam in Egypt has changed dramatically over the past decade and a half. Since the mid-1990s, the country’s mainstream Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB, or Muslim Brothers), has undergone a significant transformation; an Islamist centrist party, Hizb al-Wasat, has emerged and for the past ten years has been struggling to acquire official recognition; and the country’s radical movements, especially the Jama`a
Islamiya, have reassessed some of their tactics.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest grass-roots Islamist movement of the twentieth century (established in 1928) and perceives itself as “the mother of all centrist Islamist movements”. It is an activist movement with a comprehensive reform message, combining multi-dimensional spheres that give the movement reasonable space for manoeuvre, even when it is severely constrained by the Egyptian regime. The movement is a synthesised version of earlier reform movements (such as Salafi reformism and Islamic modernism) and can claim to be the heir of
‘reformist Islam’.1 It has adopted a gradualist bottom-up approach to change that seeks to resocialise society along Islamic lines: the individual, family, society, and then the state. The Brotherhood is also one of the most institutionalised movements in Egypt. Its structure has survived the lifetime of its founder, Hassan Al-Banna (1906-1949), despite suffering repeated phases of brutal regime repression. All this has generated a particular political orientation that is characterised by caution, gradualism, slow adaptation, and fear of experimentation and failure.
In the movement’s view, failure will not simply reflect on the leadership of the group at a particular moment, but on the entire movement. It could even affect the fortunes of political Islam as an alternative to post-independence foreign-inspired secular models. Therefore, bpreserving the survival and structural coherence of the movement has always been a top priority.
It is an objective that for long has dominated the Brotherhood’s political calculations and levels b of interaction in the political process, and enabled the movement to exhibit a pragmatic attitude whenever the circumstances warrant it.
In recent years, the Muslim Brotherhood has revised its political strategies and policy orientations. To many observers, it seems as if it has made a clear and deliberate departure from its traditionally cautious approach. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the Muslim Brothers rejected the idea of getting directly involved in the political process, participating in the parliament, or taking part in the syndicates. Their attention was mainly focused on rebuilding
the organisation’s structures and avoiding confrontations with the regime that might have provoked repression of the movement. By the mid-1980s, they gradually began to participate in parliamentary elections in alliance with other political parties like the Wafd Party in 1984 and the Labour Party in 1987. They also contested elections in syndicates and succeeded in gaining control over many of the latter during the 1990s. After 2000, the Muslim Brothers adopted an increasingly assertive strategy in their relationship with the regime and a pragmatic reform The landscape of political Islam in Egypt has changed dramatically over the past decade and ahalf. Since the mid-1990s, the country’s mainstream Islamic movement, the MuslimBrotherhood (MB, or Muslim Brothers), has undergone a significant transformation; an Islamistcentrist party, Hizb al-Wasat, has emerged and for the past ten years has been struggling toacquire official recognition; and the country’s radical movements, especially the Jama`aIslamiya, have reassessed some of their tactics.The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest grass-roots Islamist movement of the twentieth century(established in 1928) and perceives itself as “the mother of all centrist Islamist movements”. Itis an activist movement with a comprehensive reform message, combining multi-dimensionalspheres that give the movement reasonable space for manoeuvre, even when it is severelyconstrained by the Egyptian regime. The movement is a synthesised version of earlier reformmovements (such as Salafi reformism and Islamic modernism) and can claim to be the heir of‘reformist Islam’.1 It has adopted a gradualist bottom-up approach to change that seeks to resocialisesociety along Islamic lines: the individual, family, society, and then the state. TheBrotherhood is also one of the most institutionalised movements in Egypt. Its structure hassurvived the lifetime of its founder, Hassan Al-Banna (1906-1949), despite suffering repeatedphases of brutal regime repression. All this has generated a particular political orientation that ischaracterised by caution, gradualism, slow adaptation, and fear of experimentation and failure.In the movement’s view, failure will not simply reflect on the leadership of the group at aparticular moment, but on the entire movement. It could even affect the fortunes of politicalIslam as an alternative to post-independence foreign-inspired secular models. Therefore,preserving the survival and structural coherence of the movement has always been a top priority.It is an objective that for long has dominated the Brotherhood’s political calculations and levelsof interaction in the political process, and enabled the movement to exhibit a pragmatic attitudewhenever the circumstances warrant it.In recent years, the Muslim Brotherhood has revised its political strategies and policyorientations. To many observers, it seems as if it has made a clear and deliberate departure fromits traditionally cautious approach. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the Muslim Brothersrejected the idea of getting directly involved in the political process, participating in theparliament, or taking part in the syndicates. Their attention was mainly focused on rebuildingthe organisation’s structures and avoiding confrontations with the regime that might haveprovoked repression of the movement. By the mid-1980s, they gradually began to participate inparliamentary elections in alliance with other political parties like the Wafd Party in 1984 andthe Labour Party in 1987. They also contested elections in syndicates and succeeded in gainingcontrol over many of the latter during the 1990s. After 2000, the Muslim Brothers adopted anincreasingly assertive strategy in their relationship with the regime and a pragmatic reform agenda .