LOS ANGELES — The Arab Awakening offered the United States an opportunity to change its relationship with the Muslim world by allying with democratic movements instead of dictatorial regimes in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya.
But as several experts at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School argued Friday at a conference called “Religion, Democracy and the Arab Awakening,” the Obama administration couldn’t get comfortable with an essential element of Arab democracy: the reemergence of Islamist political organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood.
For example, former Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi won Egypt’s first-ever presidential election in June 2012, but he was only able to hold power for a year before the Egyptian military deposed and imprisoned him in a military coup. The United States provides Egypt’s military with more than $1 billion in aid each year, and the Obama administration proved unable or unwilling to pressure its benefactor into returning Morsi to office.
"Your government decided not to say the military coup was one," said Tariq Ramadan, Oxford University professor and the keynote speaker in Los Angeles on Friday night, going on to lambaste the massacre of more than 600 Morsi supporters by the military in August 2013. "That's not acceptable. Those people were sentenced to death. Now the US is starting to normalize its relationship with the military."
But Ramadan cautioned against the Arab world’s “obsession with the relationship with the West” and against Muslim-majority countries playing the role of the victim, calling for new alliances with BRICS countries, for example (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). He said that the Arab Awakening’s focus on democracy has actually obscured the economic and political reality underneath.
"We have to be very careful about ways that we can be used as part of the whole process,” Ramadan said. “It's not new, this is politics and we know how it works. It’s much more about economic balance in the region and geo-strategic interests, that's why we don't get it when we think about it just in terms of democracy."
But is the West ready for true Arab democracy? “Not yet,” he said with a smile.
Earlier in the day Brookings Institution fellow Shadi Hamid, who recently published a book on the emergence of “illiberal democracy,” was also critical of the US response to the coup.
“We have to respect democratic outcomes even if they do not adhere to American liberal ideals,” Hamid said.
Hamid was joined on a panel by Islamic legal scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl and former Obama national security adviser Steven Simon.
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Sparks flew in the room full of scholars, journalists, civil society advocates and students as El Fadl mocked Western liberalistic ideals, which he said often mask Western countries’ own social problems while demonizing Islamism. It set the tone for the remainder of the conversation, and played into a broader “secular vs. religious” dynamic that has epitomized post-Arab Awakening politics.
“Our liberalism allows for homelessness, human trafficking, spousal and child abuse to go unaddressed,” El Fadl said. “Abysmal policies, increasing the gap between rich and poor. When we talk about that [Islamic] zealot, we are very clear-minded about what liberalism means. It means freedom, it means happiness,” he continued, bitterly attacking the liberal narrative.
“[The viewpoint is] it doesn't matter what Islamists believe, because they're liars,” El Fadl said. “Whether in the form of Islamophobia or more classy, nuanced discussions.”
Earlier panels focused on the role of women and religious minorities in the Middle East, as well as the role that social media and digital technology played in the Arab Awakening. The social movements of that era are widely agreed to have left a permanent intellectual and even psychological legacy, if not a fundamentally different power structure in the region.
As the most populous Arab country, Egypt’s saga continues to receive the most international attention.
"Yes indeed there are setbacks to freedom and democracy, it's hard to deny that,” said Sahar Khamis, professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. “But as Obama said, Egypt will not go back to where it was. The power of Egyptian public option, that is something that shouldn't be ignored. We can see this as a transitional stage. Hopefully there will be some kind of self-corrective process."
And as for the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world?
“US policy is hypocritical, we have a terrible tragic history of intervention,” said Brookings‘ Hamid. “But somehow we still have some ‘moral suasion.’ US power is still respected and countries are looking up to the US and hoping we'll do the right thing even though we usually don't."