United Islamists in a Democratic Party

Farouk Sultan, head of the presidential election commission

Farouk Sultan, head of the presidential election commission

Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is an expert on Islamist movements, Palestinian politics and Arab law. His current work focuses on Islamist movements and their role in politics in the Arab world.

In addition to his academic work, Professor Nathan J. Brown has served in advisory committees for the Human Rights Watch and committees drafting the Palestinian and Iraqi constitutions. He has also served as a consultant at the United Nations Development Program (USAID), and several non-governmental organizations.

Professor Nathan J. Brown

Professor Nathan J. Brown

In a short interview with The Majalla, Professor Brown reflects upon the revolutionary changes that have swept across the Arab region, and discusses his experiences as a consultant drafting the constitution in Iraq and Palestine. He also stresses the need for independence within the Egyptian judiciary system to ensure the protection of civil liberties.

What is your view of the Arab region since the domination of Islamic parties? Do you believe the countries involved in the uprisings have been paved to the way to the emergence of fundamentalist movements?

There is a significant change in the region, but I do not think that it goes so far as "the control of the Islamist tendency." Actually three different processes are going on. The first is change within the Islamist tendency itself. The Brotherhood approach--which emphasizes gradual transformation of society--now seems to be dominant. The salafi approach, which also emphasizes work from below, is also growing for now. The second change is the politicization of that tendency. The Brotherhood and the salafi movements both claim to be concerned with politics among many other things. But right now politics is consuming most of their energy and attention. The third change is the ability of these movements to participate in governance--and not just as a junior partner as in Jordan in the early 1990s or Algeria in the 2000s, but as a senior partner.

The real question is whether these three trends can reinforce each other and do so in a democratic context. That is, can Islamists opt for gradualism, focus more on politics, and govern without overwhelming the system and causing either a counter-coup or an Islamist dictatorship?

On a day to day basis, the problems are obvious. But when I take a longer-range view, I am still optimistic about the process, at least in Tunisia and Egypt.

Taking into consideration your past experiences as a consultant in the drafting of the constitution in Iraq and Palestine, what are the most crucial steps that must be taken when writing up the constitution, particularly after the democratic transition and what is, in your opinion, the most important advice for the writing up of the constitution in Egypt?

I think the most important lessons from past experiences is the necessity to move by consensus and the need for close attention to the fine print. Past Arab constitutions have been written by existing regimes or by specific factions; they have therefore made good general promises but robbed those promises of their meaning in the detailed provisions.

It is difficult to build consensus in the middle of a confused political scene in which everyone is acting to protect their short-term interests. That is the challenge for Egypt especially but even for Tunisia.

You have previously mentioned in an article that Egypt needs to reform its judiciary? How do you think this could be achieved?

Yes, I think change in the judiciary is necessary but it must come slowly.

In the past, those who pushed for judicial independence were most focused on the executive. But the recent battle in Egypt was with the parliament. So, older solutions may not work.

The judiciary should not be totally isolated from politics and society, but it should not serve any particular interest--even the majority. There is nothing wrong with allowing various political forces some voice in judicial appointments, for instance. But when one specific force has all the power, that is a problem. And that voice must be respectful of judicial norms and professionalism; it also should not be exercised in response to one particular ruling but instead to the general spirit of the legal framework.

The Arab regimes and dictatorships in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya never gave the opportunity for an emergence of other political oppositions. Will the emerging new rules in the countries involved in the Arab Spring be able to establish a free democratic system and achieve sustainable developments?

In the short term, the healthiest development would be the formation of a broad coalition of civilian political forces who can push the process forward and agree on a set of rules to govern competition in the future. The coalition should not be permanent--democracy is about managing disagreements, not eliminating them. But right now those forces are so suspicious of each other that it is difficult to build sound institutions.

Professor Nathan J. Brown’s latest book is When Victory Is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics, published by Cornell University Press 2012.

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