Islamist Democrats Take Part in World Economic Forum, Legitimize Rule

The new democratically-elected Arab Islamist leaders were invited to take part in the World Economic Forum in Davos, where they voiced their opinions on economic issues facing the Arab world and reiterated their dedication to democracy. Their participation in the forum legitimized their rule in the eyes of the West, writes Aminah Abu-Shebab.

The World Economic Forum in Davos welcomed Islamist leaders from countries [that have undergone] Arab Spring revolutions and democratic change - such as Morocco, for example. These leaders attended the forum as guests of honor. Elite world economists and businessmen listened to [these leaders as they gave speeches relating to the affairs of the forum]. The speakers included: Abd-al-Mon’im Abu-al- Fotouh [Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate], Amr Khaled [a Muslim TV preacher] from Egypt, Sheikh Rashid al-Ghannouchi [leader of the Ennahda Movement], Hamad al-Jabali from Tunisia [the Tunisian prime minister] and the [head] of Morocco's [Justice and Development party] Abd-al-Ilah Bani-Kiran. The media highlighted the views that these attendees put forth before elite international economists. [Participation] in Davos, exemplifies how [these politicians] have come a [long] way from their previous role in the opposition - with all of the ideologies, programs and demands that this entailed - to democratically rising to power.

These leaders completed their initial challenge as was required of them. For them to sit in Davos in the same seats in which their former leaders used to sit [is evidence of their success]. Had they continued to employ their old rhetoric and [failed in working within a democratic system] they would not have been welcomed to Davos, and would not have had the opportunity to express themselves. Moroccan Prime Minister AbdaIlah Bin-Kiran made an interesting note to this regard during his speech. He told the participants [of the conference]: "When we were younger, we held radical ideas. Later we became realistic, and our thoughts changed." Abd-al-Ilah Bin-Kiran said that this was part of a new Islam that interacts with a democratic identity.

“Democracy is a Western product, whose sources and references are in the West. But it is also compatible with the broad framework of Islam. The [Turkish experience] is a prime example of this compatibility - it embodies a positive model of democratic Islam,” said [Bani-Kiran].

The audience [at the forum] was repeatedly told that democracy was the means by which young radical youths would be contained and that it would [prevent them from committing] illegal actions, [encourage] them to engage in political life and turn them into moderate youths.

[The new Arab leaders’] introduction of democracy provides a safeguard against extremist tendencies. [This assertion was] coupled with a persistent and direct request for economic support from "friends in Europe and the United States,” said Hamadi al-Jabali. [The speakers] painted a picture of the harsh economic conditions in these democracies. Preacher Amr Khaled spoke about the millions of unemployed Egyptian youths, [warning] that this situation might lead to extremism and explode [at any time]. [He referred to] the issue of the Coptic [Christian community] and the discrimination [it faces].

[For his part], Hammad al-Jabali stated that Tunisia has 800,000 unemployed [persons] and that 75,000 graduates end up jobless every year. [Al-Jabali added that] one fifth of the [Tunisian] population lives in poverty, and that 400,000 thousand Tunisians - especially youths - earn around one euro a day.

[The speakers gave] assurances of openness and moderation. “We are very open,” said Bani-Kiran. They also guaranteed to protect Western interests and investments. "We can protect your interests and investments better than before, what else do you want?," he added.  

[The new Arab leaders] also made strong promises to [enact] reforms on women’s issues and declared that they would be granted full rights. One headline of a report published by Reuters read: “Don’t Fear Us, Invest in Us,” meaning [without illusion] “invest in our [country].” This was the general tone and content of the speeches. Islamic leaders sought to reflect an image of moderation before international actors, in the quest for effective economic relations, emergency aid and investment to improve their economic situations.

The 42nd [World Economic Forum] in Davos was in a way a kind of ceremonial integration of the recently elected leaders of political Islam into the international political community and existing economic system. The integration [of the new Arab leaders] in this special global platform also signals that the West is legitimizing their rule. This integration - as I have said - requires that the Islamic leaders embrace democratic slogans as their [new] identity, and emphasize it over and over again. [Democracy] is the common denominator between them and the West - as Sheikh al-Ghannouchi mentioned - along with the market economy. Hamid al-Jabali [defended] this democratic identity when a newspaper described his regime as "Islamic."

"I do not think that the new regime should be described as political Islam. We must be careful in our choice of terms. We held free and fair elections, and these led to the establishment of democratic regimes,” said al-Jabali.

Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi adopted a description derived from the Western political experience and linked it with political Islam to stress that he shares the democratic grounds with the West. He likened Islamic parties to the Christian democratic parties [in Europe].

The Davos [forum] was an important test for the Islamists. Before they participated in Davos, [the Islamists’] rhetoric had been gradually shifting towards the West, its [long time] ideological and cultural opposite. [This is no longer the case] and there is no more goal to establish an Islamic state. [This goal] has been replaced by talk of [establishing] a modern civil state based on civil society. Talk of implementing the Shari’a [Islamic law] - initially a primary Islamist goal - was replaced by discussions on the need to adhere to an ethical system. [The Islamists’ views on] Palestine, a central issue, remain ambiguous and vague. The test of Davos was not only to see if the Islamists were able to adopt a moderate appearance and a different kind of rhetoric, but also to test their legitimacy before their new constituents and [their seriousness] in facing the economic responsibilities [that confront them]. These are the responsibilities for which they are seeking a lifebuoy from the West, with which are now their partners.

Lastly, there is the issue of the “Voice of Israel” radio station that claims to have spoken to Sheikh Rashid al-Ghannouchi and Prime Minister Bin-Kiran. [These leaders allegedly told the station]: "The Palestinians themselves should decide on the nature of their relations with Israel… and the Islamic movements will act according to the Palestinian decision.”  Mahmoud al-Zahar criticized this statement, Rashid al-Ghannouchi denied it, and Bin-Kiran did not deny it. The obvious question [that arises] here is the following: Does this statement fit in with the image of moderation and openness, or is it something more?

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