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The US is Gauging Islamist Organizations' Commitment to the Democratic Process

With the recent victory by Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and the success of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement in the Egyptian elections, the Bush administration wants Islamist organizations to demonstrate their commitment to the democratic process.

During the last decade, Islamist movements have established themselves as major players in the Middle East. They have shown popular appeal, a result of their combination of religious ideals, and practical social programs. They set up networks of service organizations in many countries. The social trust or social capital they generated translated over the years into political capital.

Dr. Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says it's a lesson the regions' secular parties have failed to learn.

"Their big problem is: although they have respect often in their societies, they are not able to organize people to turn out and mobilize them at the polls, organize them as constituencies, and this is something that the U.S. can't really help with,” says Dr. Brown. “What they have got to do is to stop debating the government and debating each other, and get out and organize people"

Since they have not, some political analysts say, the greatest impact on the political evolution of the Middle East will come from what they consider mainstream Islamist organizations. Those are defined as groups without militias; that do not resort to violence. Neither Hamas in the Palestinian territories nor Hezbollah in Lebanon meet those criteria and the U.S. does not talk with either, considering them terrorist organizations.

Brown says the United States has little choice but to work with the mainstream Islamists, within the context of a general promotion of democracy in the region:

"I don't think it would be effective to try to pick particular Islamist leaders and say these are the ones that we want. That might be even counterproductive,” says Brown. “I think what the U.S. can do is basically foster democratization more generally, and then allow these Islamic movements to take advantage of the opportunity and respond to the signs that opens up by the political system."

Participants in a recent panel at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C. said that there are several areas to watch to judge whether Islamist movements they consider mainstream, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are committed to the democratic process.

Dr. Amr Hamzawi, a senior associate at Carnegie, outlined several indicators: "[The] first one pertains to the implementation of Shari'a -- the Islamic law. [The] second one is violence, not that they practice violence, our mainstream movements do not practice violence, but they do have different ambiguous perceptions of whether to legitimize violence in specific contexts like Palestine or the case of Hamas or Hezbollah. So when we say violence, we basically mean their perception on violence and whether they legitimize it or not. A third gray zone is political pluralism and their perception of political pluralism."

Other indicators which Islamists are still ambiguous about include civil and political rights, women's rights and the treatment of religious minorities.

Scott Carpenter, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, says U.S. diplomats have spoken with Islamists about these issues.

"On specific things like protection of minorities and protection of women's rights, that is something that in our discussions with Islamists parties we have to continue asking them: what is your position? What is your position? Do you protect women's rights? What about the Coptic (Christian) community in Egypt? It is important that we retain our clarity even as these groups struggle to come to a conclusion within the gray zones," said Carpenter.

The U.S. has held talks with individual candidates in Egypt but not with the Muslim Brotherhood as a party because Egyptian law still bars parties based on religion. But some analysts believe that will change. They say a policy of engagement with Islamist organizations, is the only constructive option open to those who believe democratic development in the Middle East is in everyone's interest.