Interview with Amr Hamzawy

"Democratic Change Must Come from Within"

The prominent political scientist Amr Hamzawy tells Bassam Rizk why democratic change and the strengthening of civil society in the Arab world can only come from within. Interview by Bassam Rizk

Amr Hamzawy (photo: &copy Carnegie Endowment For International Peace
Amr Hamzawy: "A society cannot be democratised by outside powers"

​​Some observers hold the view that the violence between the various groups in Iraq following the war shows that the Arab peoples are not yet ready for democracy. Do you share this dubious opinion?

Amr Hamzawy: What has happened in Iraq has not been an attempt to democratise the country. The occupation of the country did not only get rid of the Saddam regime, it also got rid of all the state institutions. The collapse of the state opened the way for various interest groups to take over leadership. That is why the country is increasingly threatened by civil war. One might describe Iraq now as a failed state, since it is unable to ensure the security of its citizens without the help of the US occupation forces. All the same, Iraq is a special case. One cannot deduce from this one case how far the Arab world is ready to accept democratic processes.

The war in Iraq was part of the plans by American neo-conservative to establish a "revolutionary democratisation" of the Middle East. Have these attempts at democratisation in the Arab world now finally failed?

Hamzawy: There are some positive initiatives in Arab countries. In Palestine in 2006, for example, there were fair elections which were won by Hamas. But foreign and domestic influence have sabotaged this attempt. The West Bank has been isolated from the Gaza Strip.

There are other attempts indicating democratic change in Morocco and Kuwait. The Moroccan parliament is developing; the role of the executive is being regulated. There are certainly a few other examples. There's been less success in Egypt, Jordan and Algeria, even though one has been able to observe a political dynamic in these countries.

One cannot generalise from the example of Iraq, merely on the grounds of the fact that conditions there are currently not democratic. But the situation in the Arab world remains too complex to be able to make forecasts as to whether democracy will increase in the Arab world or not.

Some Middle East experts hold the view that the West has a divided approach to the idea of democracy in the Arab world. One the one hand the West supports the Siniora government in Lebanon, while on the other hand it categorically refuses to engage in a dialogue with the legally elected Hamas. How do you judge that?

Hamzawy: That is an interesting question. We have to differentiate between two different things here: the so-called "official" West on the one hand, and the wide variety of organisations in the west which try to support civil society in the Arab world.

George Ishak, head of Kifaya opposition movement (photo: AP)
Why are these men smiling? The government in Egypt has obstructed the political activities of opposition like e.g. the Kifaya movement

​​But the West – and especially the United States – cannot clearly solve its conflicts of interest in the region. And it is not currently in a position to bring about democratisation in the Arab world. For example, Washington cannot put the government of Saudi Arabia under pressure to democratise the country because it has virtually no instruments with which it can put pressure on the rulers in Riyadh.

But other examples, like the former states of the Eastern Block, have shown that democratisation in these countries has had positive effects for the USA and the West since they have won new friends. In the Arab world, however, Islamic movements are winning more and more support among the population, as in Egypt and Jordan. The US is sceptical about such organisations, regard them as enemies and are therefore worried about a democratic opening in these countries.

How do you see the role of the European Union in ensuring democracy, human rights and the establishment of civil society in the Arab world?

Hamzawy: We must first make something quite clear: a society cannot be democratised by outside powers. The development towards democracy is the result of the internal dynamic of a society, which can take years to produce a civil society. The problem of the European Union is that its various member states have different interests in the Middle East. Aside from that, there's the bureaucratic procedure which has to be gone through in order to bring about a decision in the EU. Furthermore, the Barcelona process has not achieved much. Between 1999 and 2003 the institutions and the members were not properly dealt with.

You have often said that 2005 meant the end of democracy in Egypt. Why?

Hamzawy: Egypt has gone through two phases in the last six years. The first phase was between 2002 and 2005: that was when the Muslim Brotherhood won 20 percent of the seats in parliament. In this phase one could clearly see a political dynamic – there were many demonstrations against the undemocratic practices of the government, such as the plan to hand over power to the son of the president. But by 2005 the Egyptian government had succeeded in holding back this political dynamic.

A total of 34 paragraphs of the constitution were amended. Half of these paragraphs promoted the idea of hereditary power, the other half were aimed at obstructing the opposition in its political activities. The problem is that the opposition is now weak and divided and is unable to put up anything against the many strategies the regime has adopted to repress democratic renewal.

The interviewer was Bassam Rizk

Translated from the Arabic by Raschid Charrak

© 2008

Amr Hamzawy is Senior Associate for the politics of the Middle East at the US Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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