Edition 25 Volume 5 - June 28, 2024

The future of secular parties in the Arab world

Lebanon: secular talk, sectarian practice -   Nizar Abdel-Kader

Of over 30 political parties and movements in Lebanon today, the most significant remain either feudal or religious in character.

North Africa: the dilemma of the secularists -   Anouar Boukhars

How do secularists escape acquiescing to authoritarian regime diktats without sinking into political obsolescence?

Continued decline is not inevitable -   Marina Ottaway

There is a demand for parties with new ideas. The question is whether secular parties can reform sufficiently to satisfy it.

Identities in conflict -   Ghassan Khatib

The revival of the religious/political discourse has polarized the region.

Lebanon: secular talk, sectarian practice
 Nizar Abdel-Kader

The Arab world is witnessing a dangerous head-on confrontation between Islamist parties and organizations and incumbent governments. At the same time secular parties are clearly facing a crisis as they struggle for relevance and, in most cases, for survival. These parties have lost their attraction for voters and have become secondary actors in the political interplay. They feel victimized by authoritarian regimes and governments and lack the resources and means to check the Islamist activists.

The current crisis of the secular movement is emerging as a major obstacle to the democratization of Arab societies. The rise of Islamists has even forced them to seek protection through alliances with ruling parties or dictators. These in turn confront them with the enduring challenge of operating in a context that systematically obstructs their political revitalization and reform. What accounts for their decline, other than being in the midst of a power struggle between dictators and Islamists, is that they are out of touch with the masses because they are often managed by an aging and stagnant leadership.

In Lebanon, a multi-party system has been in place since the 1920s. However, party constituencies have tended to form around ethnic and sectarian ties rather than political platforms. While in the 1950s and '60s some parties attempted to strengthen their secular credentials and attract constituents from outside their traditional social environments, ideologies rarely transcend allegiance to traditional leadership in Lebanon. This tendency is becoming problematic for Lebanese democracy even as several new parties are emerging as advocates of secularization.

Since independence in 1943, national policy has been determined largely by a restricted group of traditional, regional and sectarian leaders. The National Pact that established the political foundations of modern Lebanon allocated political power according to a confessional system based on the 1932 census. Efforts to alter or abolish this confessional system of allocating power along religious lines have been at the center of Lebanese politics for over 50 years. Those sectarians favored by this formula naturally sought to preserve it, while those who felt disadvantaged sought either to revise it or to abolish it. Nonetheless, many of the provisions of the unwritten National Pact were codified in the Taif agreement and later on in the constitution, perpetuating sectarianism as a key element of Lebanese political life.

Currently, a magnificent array of political parties is operating, some pre-dating independence, and the largest are confessional-based. The Phalange Party, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces have the largest popular base among Christians. On the Muslim side, Hizballah and Amal are the main parties among the Shi'ites while the Progressive Socialist Party leads the Druze. The parties within the Sunni community have always tended to focus on pan-Arab politics and have not played a significant role in shaping local politics. These Sunni parties include the Independent Nasserite organization, the Future Movement and three religious parties: the Islamist Movement (the Muslim Brotherhood), the Islamist Tawheed and the Ahabash groups.

In addition to these national parties, we find several pan-Arab secular parties such as the Baath and the Communists. These parties played a very active political and para-military role in the 1960s and throughout the years of the civil war. However, they seem to have lost a great portion of their popular support to newborn parties such as Hizballah, the Future Movement and the Free Patriotic Movement.

Lebanon was once seen by most Arabs as an island of democracy and liberty amid Arab dictatorships. This free environment within Lebanon encouraged a political and ideological dialogue between those attached to Arab nationalism and those defending Lebanon's independence and particularism. It was in the midst of that dialogue that Antoun Saadeh made the only real attempt to establish a secular party in Lebanon. It was known as the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party and it sought to incorporate Lebanon within Greater Syria.

The crisis of secular parties is emerging as a major barrier to democratic transformation in Lebanon as well as in the Arab world. Since the Syrian withdrawal, the political debate has become broader and very active, with a gradual shift toward sectarianism. The mass media expose citizens to a political horizon wherein the spectrum of viable secular parties is becoming narrower. This phenomenon was reflected in the last parliamentary elections, in which all secular groups and movements failed to achieve a significant presence. This weakness is reflected in a curious blurring of the lines of dialogue between the majority and the opposition. Secular parties caught in the middle suffer at the hands of both the Fourteenth of March majority and the Eighth of March opposition.

There are over 30 political parties and movements in Lebanon today; most of them are simply groups gathered around an ambitious person trying to make a political career. The significant organizations among them remain either feudal or religious in character. In such an environment, secular parties are not acting as political forces that can bring democracy. This deficiency leaves little opportunity to improve the political and socio-economic debate in Lebanon. The crucial dynamics required for such a development will remain missing until secular parties reactivate their role, creating the most needed political reforms. But to do so, they must first change their stagnant leadership and agendas.- Published 28/6/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Nizar Abdel-Kader is a political analyst/columnist at Ad-Diyar newspaper, Beirut.

North Africa: the dilemma of the secularists
 Anouar Boukhars

The absence of competitive-democratic patterns in North Africa cannot be ascribed solely to the actions of the undemocratic regimes of the region. The latter have certainly done very little to strengthen brittle governance structures, deepen government accountability and widen the scope of participatory politics. But this cannot fully explain the enduring democratic deficit that still plagues North Africa. In fact neither the intimidating coercive capacity of the state nor the fear of the formidable powers of political Islam can account fully for the durability and resilience of state authoritarianism.

The problem of democracy in North Africa is the weakness of secular parties and their inability to mobilize mass constituencies. Their organizational inefficacy and inability or unwillingness to lead meaningful tangible reforms have largely discredited them in the eyes of populations increasingly depoliticized and tempted by radicalism. In all the countries of North Africa, secular parties appear stuck and trapped in political decrepitude. With few exceptions, they have failed to take advantage of opportunities to press for improvements in governance and accountability. Even those allowed to serve in government have demonstrated a troubling ambivalence toward reform. Most secular parties are so weak and scared of losing "power" and privilege to a vibrant and dynamic Islamist movement that many of them have sacrificed the ideals they once stood for.

In North Africa, secular parties suffer from a number of structural deficits that underline their current intellectual, political, and organizational stagnation. Despite all their rhetoric in defense of democracy and reform of fossilized institutions, they are uncertain about how to come out of their own institutional stasis and break their political stagnation. The absence of even a semblance of a vision for the future and an inability to offer effective and coherent alternatives to a failed status quo reflect a disquieting reality of secular politics in North Africa. Whether working from within the state apparatus or outside it, secular parties have proven unwilling to venture beyond the top-down nature of state-managed liberalization for fear of alienating the regimes they ironically need in order to survive politically and compete against the ascendancy of moderate Islamist movements.

Therein lies the dilemma of secular liberal and leftist parties: how do they escape acquiescing to authoritarian regime diktats without sinking into political obsolescence? Or how would they survive the onslaught of moderate Islamism without allying themselves with undemocratic regimes determined to crush any challengers to the status quo? Secular parties are keenly aware of their weaknesses and inability to compete with better organized Islamist movements. They are equally aware that to translate their lofty rhetoric into reality, they need reach out to moderate Islamists. For now, however, most secular parties prefer holding on to their privileges by being close to authoritarian regimes rather than collaborating with powerful Islamist reformers to help strengthen the rule of law and the capacities of political institutions.

Today most parties, whether in office or in opposition, claim they are democratic. In reality they represent almost everything they once stood against. Most are in collusion with regimes they once abhorred. Of course, secular parties would like their shrinking constituencies and the public at large to understand the rationale behind their tactical support of undemocratic regimes. Support for state secular authoritarianism is seen as necessary to stem the tide of religious "fundamentalism". But secular parties are not just concerned about radical Islamism. What they are really worried about is their growing irrelevance and inability to compete with even moderate Islamist movements in a free, democratic environment.

In countries like Morocco, the historical secular opposition parties that are today in power have lost so much of their prestige and reputation that without gerrymandering of the electoral system and manipulation of district lines, they might end up being trounced in the forthcoming election by the moderate Justice and Development Party (PJD). If King Mohamed VI were to outlaw the PJD, he would have the full support of most secular parties, especially those who stood for decades against his father's reign of terror.

As the case of Morocco clearly demonstrates, secular parties are mainly interested in pursuit of narrow self-interest. They allow themselves to be used and abused by regimes whose sole focus is self-preservation and maintenance of the status quo. All North African rulers accentuate the fear of Islamism and play on secular parties' insecurities to consolidate their hold on power and propagate the perception that they, and only they, can act as a bulwark against religious fundamentalism.

For now, secular parties are unwilling to move beyond their comfort zone despite the damage that their close association with the current status quo has done to their reputation. But for the sake of stability, democracy and progress, secular parties need to reform and democratize themselves. Their internal lack of transparency and debate has done incalculable damage to their efficacy. The development of strong secular parties would serve the interests of the people of North Africa, not because they are better poised to reform their countries than the moderate Islamists, but because political pluralism is necessary to put pressure on authoritarian governments and especially to prevent a lapse back into further deliberalization.- Published 28/6/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of political science and international studies at McDaniel College. He is also a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

Continued decline is not inevitable
 Marina Ottaway

Secular parties independent of governments are experiencing a deep crisis in most Arab countries. The decline affects liberal and socialist-oriented parties alike. While the crisis is real, continued decline is not inevitable: there still exist in the Arab world large potential constituencies that are disenchanted with incumbent regimes but not willing to commit to Islamist parties either.

The crucial question is whether secular parties can develop programs and form organizations capable of capturing some of those uncommitted constituencies. Unless secular parties revive, politics in the Arab world will turn increasingly into a confrontation between authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes on one side and Islamist movements on the other. This will encourage extremism on both sides and reduce the chances for meaningful political reform.

Secular parties--that is parties that do not explicitly derive their ideology from Islam, but are not necessarily anti-Islamic or anti-religion--played a central role in Arab politics in the past. Liberal and socialist parties were important actors in nationalist movements, with liberal parties such as the Wafd in Egypt being most influential before World War II and socialist-oriented parties like the Algerian FLN acquiring greater prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. Secular without being militantly secularists, such parties were widely accepted not only by intellectuals but also by people for whom Islam remained the central cultural and religious reference point. The ideas secular parties stood for, be they independence, social and economic change, development or Arab nationalism, resonated among the population, and their secularism was not a significant issue.

But today secular parties do not have distinctive ideologies or political programs. Parties that still have the word socialist in their name no longer push socialist ideas or solutions, but embrace market economics and liberal democracy. So do liberal parties. Incumbent governments pay lip-service to the dominant economic and political ideas of the post-Cold War era, even when they have no intention of following them in practice. Without distinctive ideologies or programs to attract a following, secular parties have become defensive about their identity. In fact, most do not want to be identified as secular, protesting instead their attachment to and respect for Islam.

Liberal and socialist parties in the Arab world objectively face a difficult situation. Islamic organizations and movements have become much stronger and exert a strong influence on social norms and popular culture everywhere. Governments, worried about the rise of Islamist parties, curb the activities of all independent political organizations and make it difficult for all parties to operate rather than seeking allies among secular groups. But secular parties have compounded the problem by their failure to craft coherent programs and devise organizational strategies.

Indeed, secular parties are at their weakest organizationally. Islamist parties have dedicated years, even decades, to the painstaking work of building political structures and membership rolls, while secular parties have neglected such activities. Furthermore, many intellectuals have deserted political parties altogether, choosing instead to form civil society organizations as a means of influencing public debates and policy. But civil society organizations are not a substitute for political parties in election-based political systems, and civil society organizations have little influence on parliaments where pro-government forces are dominant and Islamists are the main opposition. Nor have attempts to bypass organizational weaknesses by direct action in the street to put pressure on the government been effective. The Kiffaya movement in Egypt lasted for the brief span of an election campaign and atrophied thereafter.

Secular parties are also weak on the policy front. While some Islamist organizations like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Moroccan Party for Justice and Development have started building up their expertise on concrete policy issues, secular parties are more likely to focus on abstract issues that do not necessarily resonate with the public. For example, the secular Moroccan parties that joined the government in 1997, some of their officials admit, have focused much of their attention on their relations with the palace and have missed opportunities to influence policy.

The conditions of secular parties are discouraging, but their continued decline is not inevitable. Except in Gulf countries, Arab political systems are today based on multi-party elections. Even if elections are manipulated, voters do play a role. And judging by the high degree of absenteeism, voters in most countries are not happy with the choices they are offered. In Egypt, for example, at most a quarter of eligible voters go to the polls. Many voters, probably most, are today uncaptured either by the political machine of the incumbent government or by that of Islamist parties. There is a demand for parties with new ideas and programs. The question is whether secular parties can reform themselves sufficiently to satisfy it.- Published 28/6/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Marina Ottaway is the director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Identities in conflict
 Ghassan Khatib

Secularism in the Middle East is witnessing a period of sustained decline that is unlikely to end soon. But it wasn't always that way. During the first half of the last century, secular and nationalist parties were prominent. They led the liberation movements across the region at a time when the process of decolonization and struggle for independence framed the political lives of the peoples of the region.

The growth and international role of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc, which strongly supported these liberation movements, contributed to their prominence, as did the alliance between the anti-West/anti-imperialist movement and the secular forces that tried to play a progressive role on social and economic issues within these countries.

Eventually, nationalist secular groups emerged as the ruling parties and regimes across the Arab world. At that point, the political competition was primarily between the nationalist parties, predominantly secular anyway, and socialists, prominent among the intellectual and educated strata of society.

Religious parties, which in Arab countries were led and politically and ideologically organized by the Muslim Brotherhood movement, came a distant third for several reasons. At the time, they were less active in the political life of the nations and remained neutral in the struggle against western colonial powers. Thus their contribution in the struggle for liberation was minimal. They were neither strong nor particularly popular and were not invited to take part in any governments after colonialism came to an end.

But they were always there. And as the last century wound to a close, a new one started and people across the region came to the conclusion that their governments and rulers had failed them, the religious parties are ready to step into the breach.

Arab publics' judgment on their own governments has been damning. Arab regimes have failed to maintain independence by becoming economically and thus politically dependent on superpowers. They failed to achieve social and economic development and remained backward economies and states. They failed--in what most people across the region see as an important criterion for judging these regimes--in the Arab-Israel struggle, where some of them were defeated in four successive wars.

Finally, they are perceived by their publics as submitting to the kind of peace that was reached between Israel and Egypt and later the imbalanced and unjust political arrangements between Israel and the PLO.

These failures weakened and will continue to weaken the secular and nationalist movements in the Arab world. And thus people are turning to those parties and groups that were all along in the opposition. Islamist parties and movements are the only candidates offering a potential alternative to failure.

Globalization is another reason for this flight from secularism. The phenomenon of globalization brought western cultural hegemony into a region already under western economic hegemony. With the region's history under threat of being swept aside, the reaction has been swift and radical. People felt a strong need to maintain and revive whatever special cultural and historical characteristics are unique to them. Islam and Islamic history and heritage offer the best means of resistance to this cultural onslaught and have been raised as the most viable banner around which a strong identity can be reborn.

But the revival of the religious/political discourse has polarized the region. Much of that has to do with the very extreme expression of this ideology that was witnessed on 9/11 and in other terrorist attacks both in and outside the region. The reaction by the West has reinforced the impression on all sides that Islam is the only identity that can stand in clear opposition to western hegemony, with concomitant consequences everywhere. These developments, together with the failure of secular regimes and parties, have created a very clear public sentiment against secularism and in favor of Islamic fundamentalism.

The immediate prospects indicate that the Islamist movements will go from strength to strength for the time being. Secular parties are weak and divided and will only become weaker. Reversing this process requires social and economic development across the region--backward societies are more likely to follow extreme and isolationist ideologies and tendencies. But it also requires a just end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in particular but also other regional conflicts, such as in Iraq, that provide fertile soil for anti-western sentiments that are often expressed as anti-secularism and consequently encourage fundamentalism.- Published 28/6/2007 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

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