Islamists: a view from British Conservatives

"Don't panic" is the basic message of a report on engaging with Islamist governments, published by the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) in Britain.

"The once-imagined prospect of Islamist political forces playing a central role in the region's future is now a reality," it says, adding that "western governments now have little choice but to engage with democratically elected Islamists and whatever governments they form". 

Well, yes – except that engaging with Islamist governments in the Middle East is nothing new. The report seems to forget that Britain and other western countries have been doing it for years. 

Those rich and ever-so-friendly princes in Saudi Arabia are the prime example, though most Arab regimes can be considered "Islamist" to some extent. Almost all of them provide a constitutional role for Islam, whether as the official religion of the state, as a source of legislation (in some cases the main or only source) or by stipulating that the head of state must be a Muslim.

These, of course, are the old, undemocratic regimes that we know and sometimes love, and the CMEC report is talking about the new, democratically elected governments – especially the one in Egypt.

Here again, we shouldn't get over-excited. Although Islamists currently have a majority in Egypt, no single Islamist party has yet won an overall majority in free elections to an Arab parliament. 

That said, and bearing in mind that the CMEC is an offshoot of the British Conservative Party (only party members can join), the report does make some interesting observations.

"If Egypt’s Islamist government continues on its current course, at some point it will likely falter and fall. 

"Popular disillusionment and impatience with the apparent shortcomings of Islamist political solutions risks a desperate population abandoning democratic political processes in favour of more radical action, leaving open the possibility of an ensuing battle for ownership of Egypt’s revolution, as a swing to more radical solutions offered by religious fundamentalist forces is met by fierce resistance from their secularist opponents."

It suggests that the Egyptian military could eventually step in, though the military may also turn out to be just as divided as the rest of the country and unable to agree on a course of action.

Turning to western foreign policy options, it says:

"The fundamental challenge is to strike a pragmatic balance between on the one hand effective engagement that furthers western foreign policy and security objectives, whilst on the other avoiding domestic perceptions and accusations of essentially 'appeasing terrorists' and parties whose policies are anathema to current western values.

"The west also faces hurdles in overcoming the longstanding, negative popular perceptions of it in the Arab world that are now reinvigorated with Islamist triumphalism."

It warns against the "conflation of all Islamists – whether moderate 'liberals' who have been forced out of the Muslim Brotherhood or hard core militant Salafis – into a homogenous core of anti-western, bearded misogynists will rapidly erode western governments’ room to manoeuvre in successfully navigating and engaging with them".

"As alarmist commentary [in sections of the media] feeds a prevalent 'fear' narrative amongst western voting publics and also provides Muslim populations with evidence of the west’s hostility to them, the risk is that broad, populist generalisations will drown out the nuance and complexity needed to engage with the new regional realities."

In engaging with Islamist governments, the report urges less preoccupation with their ideology and and more emphasis on their competence (or lack of it). Thus, issues of human rights and the role of women could be "recast" as "primarily concerns over
good, effective government" rather than disputes about religion or local traditions.

It also proposes focusing on mutual interests and identifying "shared goals" which "could begin to redraw the client-patron arrangements, exemplified by EU grants and US subsidy programmes, that ultimately have sowed so much resentment and yet achieved so little in the region".

Nevertheless, the report says western governments should set "non-negotiable parameters for cooperation with Islamist political leaderships that establish how serious they are in pursuing courses of moderation and inclusivity that acknowledge international conventions on issues from human rights to free trade".

I would be interested to hear what readers think of this – and also to what extent it might reflect the views of Conservative voters in Britain. 

The report's author is Charles Holmes, described as a foreign policy and security analyst who "spent a number of years working with the highest levels of the Egyptian government" between 2003 and 2011.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 March 2013.