Of liberals, secularists, Islamists and other labels

I want to discuss here the labels assigned to Arab political parties and politicians (if you want to get to that directly skip till the end of the following quotes), but before let me point out what started this post — a fine piece by Nasser Rabbat on Steve Walt's blog, Arab secularism and its discontent:

Is this a new turn for the West? Did the West support the secularists before the revolutions? And has Arab secularism really become irrelevant? My answer to all three questions is an emphatic no.

Many good points he explores each in turn, before concluding:

Arab secularism, however, remains on the street and online. Though outdone in the current rush to power by the Islamists, it still has the ability to reassert itself in the political arena, if not as the ruling party, at least as lawful opposition and guardian of the principles of civic freedoms. The culture of lawful opposition, long absent under the totalitarian regimes, needs to be reinserted into the political discourse. This is as important a function as good governance for the well-being of the nascent Arab democracies. To that end, the efforts of the discontented revolutionary youth and the seasoned secular intellectuals should be united under the umbrella of political parties. The West should help them by recognizing their crucial political role and by treating them as long-term partners not just as recipients of training and aid.

I will take him to task for a factual mistake, though, here:

The few attempts to register a secularist political presence in the elections in Tunis and Egypt were swept aside by the eminently more organized Islamist parties and by their shrewd appeal to the basic religiosity of the people, especially the poor and the illiterate.

Secularist parties have at least 40% of seat in Tunisia's constituent assembly/interim parliament, and both the speaker of that assembly and the president are secularists. In Egypt that percentage could be argued to have been 20-30% in the dissolved parliament and nearly 50% of voters voted for non-Islamist candidate in the presidential election and 50% of the electorate decided not to vote at all in the presidential election, where secularist candidates won over 30% in the first round, including Hamdeen Sabahi, who came third. 

The question for Arab secularists is not that they are an anemic force in society. It's that they are divided (on the conservative / progressive and economically liberal / socialist axes) and disorganized. The key to their future electoral success will be building strong organizations and finding the right mix of alliances with conservative political forces (i.e. felool) and moderate Islamists. In other words, the winning combination may not be a liberal one but still be a mostly secular (at least in Arab terms, not European ones) one.

The recent Libyan elections are a case in point in this distinction. What have been annoyingly called "liberals" performed well in the election, but this is a catch-all term that really is used to say non-Islamist and perhaps non-a certain type of Islamist, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. But these liberals include parties and movements led by former Qadhafi regime officials who defected early and probably a bunch of people who should not be called liberals in at least the two standard meanings of the term: either economically liberal secularists as is meant is most of continental Europe, where liberal parties tend to be center-right, or socially liberal as is generally meant in the US, and associated with the center-left. Of course the irony is that a liberal in the Arab world could very well not be secularist — i.e. he could be a moderate Islamist — while a secularist might be a Stalinist or Nasserist, or in other word not particularly progressive in terms of human rights or liberal in the economic sense. 

We need better terms that this, or perhaps more terms than merely liberal, secular (these two sometimes wrongly used interchangeably) and Islamists. Let's start with Islamists: a wide range of people fall under this label, with different views. Arguably the Muslim Brotherhood tendency deserves in own label, due to its relative ideological coherence and strength. Salafis are also diverse, since only a segment engage in politics, but that segment is pretty reliably ultra-conservative. And then there are new variants of Islamism usually described as "moderate" which is not quite satisfactory either, especially when the Brothers in particular often use this word to describe themselves. So we may have:

  • Ikhwani Islamist for Muslim Brothers;
  • Salafi Islamist for the various Salafi parties, who are mostly socially ultra-conservative;
  • Wasati Islamist for individuals like Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh or the Wasat or Egyptian Current parties.

How about the non-Islamists? Historically there is the Arab nationalist trend, which can be further divided into Nasserist, Baathist and various local variants. But the nationalist trend is fast-changing — how much longer will anyone call themselves a Baathist? Sometimes the national label — Nasserist — is most appropriate because it is used by politicians to define themselves, for instance for Hamdeen Sabahi in Egypt. But these personalities and parties do share a common adherence to the idea of Arab unity, which still has backers in many countries and often translates, as in the Maghreb, into policies that stress Arab identity (e.g. in national education). So it seems to be that Arab nationalist is a decent catch-all label for these, even for those newer types of parties that, while making a nod to Arab nationalism, are progressive like Moncef Marzouki's CPR in Tunisia.

There is also a growing social-democrat movement in the Arab world that draws inspiration from the European model — Mohamed ElBaradei explicitly referred to his experience living in Austria, for instance, and used the label himself. The Egyptian Social Democratic Party also falls under this label. Social democrats could of course be Wasati Islamists in the Arab world, and I suspect this will develop in that direction, representing what is called, usually derisively, "Islamo-gauchiste" in French.

Socialists put more emphasis on issues of social justice and the redistribution of wealth, and most often tend to be secularists. Radical socialists might as well be included here for now, since this trend tends to be stronger in civil society than in electoral politics. But whether "moderate" or Trotskyist or even Stalinist, this socialist/Marxist trend has a long and rich history in the Arab world, and there's no reason to think that it's over just because the terms "Islamist" and "liberal" tend to dominate the headlines.

Liberal is a label I feel should be used in the European sense in the Arab world, because Arab politics (in these early days of emerging democracy) tends to resemble continental Europe more than the two-party systems that have dominated Anglo-saxon politics for centuries — i.e. they are more likely to be coalition driven and constantly in flux, as the political boundaries of France or Germany or Israel often are. In Egypt the liberals are clearly the Free Egyptians (which can also be translated as the Liberal Egyptians), they are also ultra-secularists. There are similar parties in Tunisia, essentially representing the business elite and libertarians.

What of the felool? Over time, I think these will dissolve into the other trends, but they can also represent a certain conservatism. Perhaps the Bourguibist parties of Tunisia, represented by personalities like Beji Caid Essebsi or Kamel Morjane, represent this trend. There is a Sadatism in Egypt that can also be described as conservative, and most importantly statist. The Istiqlal Party in Morocco is also conservative, while taking in some Arab nationalist ideas and social conservatism. Ultimately these may be termed conservative, because they are attached to an old order and ideology.

The bottom line: Ellis Goldberg put it well in a recent piece on the importance of Egypt's institutions when he wrote:

The problem with thinking of Egyptian politics as a two-party game is that there are more than two actors.

He meant it in a broader way then about political parties, but the same thinking applies about selecting labels to describe politicians and parties in the post-uprising Arab world. The US model — Democrats vs. Republicans, conservatives vs. liberals — simply does not apply. We need to be more careful with the terms we use and stricter in defining them, so that the results of Libya's elections and future ones elsewhere are not reduced to a nonsensical "victory for liberals" headline.

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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.