To get Western support, Arab secularists need to stop being stupid

Borzou Daragahi has a piece in FT titled Arab liberals need the west’s support (and a companion report here). He argues:

Close watchers of the Middle East knew the Islamists would be a major factor once Arab tyrannies were toppled. They have organisational capacity, popular support and international connections lacked by their rivals.

But what is most surprising, given the gutting they suffered at the hands of Arab dictators for the past few decades, is how strong, vital and persistent liberals, secularists and leftists in the region are becoming.

. . .

The challenge for the west and for the next US president, and a worthy subject for the next debate, is how to support liberal and secular political forces as well as the tolerant wings of the ascendant Islamist forces so that they pursue the pragmatist course of Turkey rather than the harsh, repressive vision of Saudi Arabia or Iran.

I'm all for greater Western support for like-minded people in the Arab world — rather than the betting on the Muslim Brotherhood as the new normal that has characterized, for instance, part of the Obama administration's approach. But it's not a one-way street. Arab secularists, leftist, liberal or conservative, have to not only be better organized and able to perform well in elections, but also stop having moronic attitudes towards the West.

Having lunch yesterday with a Western diplomat, he complained that for instance labor groups and other leftist forces refused to meet with him because they feared being accused of collaborating with Western forces. The MB, of course, has used the charge that secularists are Western-funded to tar them. The Mubarak regime used to do the same. But considering that Muslim Brothers spent much of the past 18 months ingratiating themselves with the West, they have to move beyond these fears and push back on these charges. And there is absolutely no reason for them to refuse to meet with Western officials, or form partnerships with like-minded political parties, trade unions, and other organizations in the West. The Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly impervious to attacks on having foreign ties, either, after all.

I believe in the electoral viability of non-Islamist parties, even if I despair of their divisions and organizational abilities. These things will improve. But I am simply dumb-founded by the stupid pseudo-nationalist positions some cling to. They need to multiply foreign ties and leverage them for political advantage. That's what the MB has been doing, even before it was in power. Why should secularists be any different?

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.