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Raghida Dergham Headshot

The West's Imprudent Investment in Islamist Movements

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Davos -- Precisely one year ago, during the annual conference of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, the participants, major intellectual and political leaders and businessmen, were caught by surprise by the developments in Egypt. They followed them from the Alps with both amazement and questions. At the time, a Tunisian delegation that included young people and modernists had come to the forum. Its members were enthusiastically welcomed when they spoke at a seminar that praised the change that had taken place in Tunisia without prior warning. No one really knew that the dominos would continue to fall and reach the likes of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. This year, change has become in the minds of those participating in the Davos conference, an event that pushes forward from place to place, as if it were a season of the year. Libya and Yemen are on the slow cooker, but Syria continues to be at the top of the concerns for the Davos community -- albeit less so than the events in Egypt had been a year ago.

Most striking was the participation of the elected Tunisian government, led by the Ennahda Movement, which has been waging as a "charm offensive" in Western capitals, major intellectual forums and international corporate giants. All of a sudden, those who had previously voiced fears regarding the Ennahda Movement and the Muslim Brotherhood moved to the forefront of those defending their right to rule, because they came to power through the ballot boxes. The frightening disregard for what is happening on the ground, in terms of curtailing democracy, is quite striking, and it has aroused the suspicion of young people and of women in positions of change, especially as this is coming essentially from the West and its various leaderships. To be clear, none of these young people and women are demanding that the results of the elections in Tunisia be overlooked, yet many are complaining of the excessive hastiness to hold parliamentary elections. It was clear the Islamists would win, given their political experience, when presidential elections should have been held instead, as they would give young people and women a chance to organize into political parties and wage the electoral battle. Because the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia has been dedicating itself to embellishing its image in the West and enticing it with moderate Islam and the ability of the Muslim Brotherhood wherever it may be to adopt the Turkish model, the issue deserves a pause and an in-depth review.

During the visit made by the author of this article to Tunisia at the beginning of the week, it was truly striking to hear what Tunisians were saying about the man whom Davos had warmly welcomed last year, the highly qualified Governor of the Central Bank and former economic expert at the World Bank, Mustapha Nabli. They were saying that a fierce campaign was being waged against him because he is the only non-Islamist in government. They also spoke of organized demonstrations targeting him, in which security services were forced to ensure his escape.

Women, taxi drivers and major businessmen spoke of power being monopolized and of the state not playing its role under the rule of the Ennahda Movement. They spoke of a group of fully veiled women (wearing the niqab) shutting down an entire university and of the support they received from Salafist men. This meant physically abusing the university's president, who had sought an understanding with the veiled women that had stormed the campus, insisting on breaking the laws that require them not to wear the niqab on university campuses. The leaders of the Ennahda Movement pretexted that the veiled women had exploited the incident to say: look, they are the extremists and we are the moderates.

The fact of the matter is that the Ennahda Movement in power has refused to act as a state that enforces laws, and this has led to depriving young college girls, who had fallen hostage to the veiled women, from completing their studies as they should. The Ennahda government could have taken a decision as a state, but it chose to make use of the incident to serve its own interests, promoting itself as moderate and at a distance from extremists on the one hand, while on the other making sure to maintain its understanding with the Salafists. Indeed, it is not really clear whether predictions of a confrontation between the Salafist Islamists and the Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood will prove true, as there are those who believe that what is happening is a kind of distribution of roles, until the West falls in love with the Muslim Brotherhood, welcomes the rule of Islamists, and provides them with aid so that their rule may prosper at the expense of secularists and modernists.

What is also happening, and this is truly striking, is that members of the former regime in Tunisia are helping the Islamists in order to exact revenge on the young people who ignited the Revolution. Also striking is the fact that the Islamist camp includes capitalists and businessmen, as well as the Right, while the moderate camp is being portrayed as that of the rich and of Leftists. The lack of clarity of the programs promised by the Ennahda Movement during the electoral campaign arouses resentment and concern, as well as remorse. Monopolizing power, instead of bringing technocrats into government, hints to the fact that the Ennahda Movement embraces single-party rule.

The Revolution demanded dignity -- through jobs, eliminating monopoly, and decent life, far from dictates, fear-mongering and accusations of treason. Today, some of the ministers who had suffered deprivation are being made use of in order to launch campaigns, accusing some of treason and holding them to account in an exceptional manner, instead of seeking to build a collaborative civil society. This has created social tension and political and partisan movements at the expense of the aspirations for the secular state.

"It is called Strife," said a young Tunisian woman from the youth of the Revolution, who insist on not sitting idly by and watch the Islamists in power. "No to class warfare," said a businessman who insists on ensuring the success of the Ennahda Movement in power, out of concern for the future of Tunisia, so as for Ennahda's failure not to result in an economic catastrophe in a country devoid of any notable natural resources, save for its beauty and the importance of tourism for its economy. "I want tourism, not long beards," said a taxi driver, who spoke of a situation that had created a frightening social climate that scares away tourists, no matter how much makeup the revolutionary party uses to polish its image with Westerners. They all spoke of a new face for Tunisia today, where the jasmine season has gone, to be replaced by a climate of fear and insecurity. Yet there is one important exception, according to a Tunisian woman who sat in the hotel lobby, speaking freely and fiercely criticizing the way women after the Revolution have been systematically exploited. She paid no heed to those around her, and boasted as she said: "yes, something of the utmost importance has changed. I am able to express my opinion freely. I am no longer afraid, nor do I whisper and glance nervously at those who might be listening and sending intelligence reports."

The value of the freedom of expression and of the defeat of fear is great, and it is important in this society whose young people initiated change in the entire Arab region. Regardless of the difficult phase produced by the ballot boxes in favor of the Islamists, most of Tunisia's young people consider change to be a process that has just begun, not an event that has ended. Those youths and women are not rejecting the results of the elections, nor are they saying: let Ennahda fail, let the country fail with it and let Tunisia be lost. They are saying that the new arena in their considerations is organizing into political parties, engaging in the decision-making process, and influencing the popular base so that it may hear what the modernists have to say and express its choices in the ballot boxes in the next elections. That is what democracy is, according to the young people and the women of Tunisia. Yet at the same time they wonder: why has the West forsaken us? Why is it embracing the Muslim Brotherhood and ignoring us? Is it wagering on the failure of the Islamists in power? Or is it wagering on the fact that the Islamists in power would need it, economically first, and thus that its holding the instruments of their salvation would lead the Islamists to rely on the West and be forced to adapt on many levels? They wonder if the West's policy is based on undermining the forces of modernity and secularism, especially as its relationship with the Islamists has a long history that dates back to the second half of the past century. They say: is the goal to provoke resentment against the Islamists, or to neutralize Islamists abroad? Is this containing the Islamists or testing them? Perhaps it is a wager on divisions among Islamists and among Islamic sects at large?

In Tunisia, some find strange the prominence of the Salafists, and there are rumors of women being paid to wear the niqab and men to grow their beards. The Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood have placed women at the forefront of their promotional and social strategy, not just with the aim of subjugating them, but also as an object of religious competition between them. They are making of women the defining feature of conservative society, dictating what they should wear, what they should study, how they should walk, and with whom they should mix. Women are in their opinion a commodity they have the right to make use of in the name of tradition. That is how their democracy is truncated and lacking -- women have no civil rights, and they are second class citizens.

Even in Tunisia, where the laws established by former President Habib Bourguiba are more progressive than those of any other Arab country, the laws have not yet been eliminated, but effective practices indicate that the laws are not being applied, and that fatwas are finding their way to become laws. The social pressure women are subjected to in Tunisia is terrible, as they face a culture that dictates to them what they should do. In spite of this, the women of Tunisia are qualified and competent, and their political and social role will not diminish. Tunisian women are well aware that failing to perform their roles will lead to excluding women and subjugating them. They are strong, but they need the support of local, regional and international civil institutions. Indeed, it is unacceptable for the world to stand idly by, watching what is happening to Arab women in the age of change, and welcoming the prevailing democracy that takes away women's fundamental and democratic rights.

In Davos or in Washington, Paris, Geneva or London, they race to embrace the Islamists, regardless of what is happening in the arenas of change. But this is an imprudent investment in the future of the Arab region and the future of Arab relations with the West. Of course, there must be dialogue with the Islamists in power and outside of it. And of course, the results of elections must be respected. Yet this does not negate the necessity of standing up to exclusion, monopoly and false democracy, as long as Arab women are their victims, and as long as Arab youths -- men and women -- are excluded from the decision-making process, while young people are the ones who rose up in revolt for the sake of participating in defining their own destiny.

The Ennahda government has sought to charm Davos, and it has tried to do so. But its monochromic delegation has exposed its shortcomings in terms of comprehensive democracy, and revealed indications that should be examined closely and in-depth, instead of rushing to embrace it.

RaghidaDergham.Com