While U.S. engagement of moderate Islamists remains a hotly debated question, U.S. democracy promoters have been working with legal Islamist parties and their leaders over the past decade. This Special Report examines the experiences of U.S. democracy promoters at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) working with Islamist parties in three countries: Morocco, Jordan, and Yemen.

Summary

  • Parliamentary elections across the Middle East have led to a wave of Islamist victories. Islamist parties typically boast leaders who are young and dynamic, with strong ties to the community; their party organizations brim with energy and ideas, attracting those who seek change.
  • The U.S. government has quietly engaged moderate Islamist parties for several years. U.S. engagement has been most successful where democratic reform is already underway and where the government is genuinely committed to political opening. Other factors include the Islamist parties' political sophistication, popular credibility, and openness to working with U.S. organizations.
  • A successful Islamist engagement strategy both empowers individuals and strengthens institutions to yield greater transparency, more accountability, and shifts toward greater moderation.
  • Of the three cases addressed in this paper--Morocco, Jordan, and Yemen--Morocco appears to hold the greatest promise for U.S. engagement with moderate Islamists. Meanwhile, Jordan and Yemen offer important though limited instances of success.
  • U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East affects the ability of U.S. organizations to promote democracy there. At times, Islamist parties have cut off contact with U.S. democracy promoters to protest specific aspects of U.S. foreign policy, such as the war in Iraq.
  • Ultimately, U.S. engagement of moderate Islamists must be understood within the broader political context of the ideological battle in the Muslim world over the place of Islam in public life. Moderate Islamist parties that reject violence and practice democratic ideals are an important counterweight to Islamist extremism, and their work should be encouraged.

About the Report

While U.S. engagement of moderate Islamists remains a hotly debated question, U.S. democracy promoters have been working with legal Islamist parties and their leaders over the past decade. This Special Report examines the experiences of U.S. democracy promoters at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) working with Islamist parties in three countries: Morocco, Jordan, and Yemen. The assessment is written from the perspective of democracy promoters; it is based on extensive interviews and discussions with staff members who reside in-country, Washington-based staff, and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) democratization experts. The promoters’ views are necessarily subjective, providing one viewpoint to understand this complex topic.

This report was written by Mona Yacoubian, a special adviser to the United States Institute of Peace's Muslim World Initiative and author of two previous Special Reports examining reform efforts in the Arab world: Promoting Middle East Democracy: European Initiatives and Promoting Middle East Democracy II: Arab Initiatives. The assessment was conducted in conjunction with a larger USAID-sponsored study titled "Political Opposition in the Arab World: Assessing Opportunities and Obstacles to Promoting Democracy." The overall project is directed by Daniel Brumberg of the United States Institute of Peace.

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