Secular Parties in the Arab World

Here's an interesting paper from Marina S. Ottaway and Amr Hamzawy: "Fighting on Two Fronts: Secular Parties in the Arab World":

Without strong secular parties, political competition in the Arab world could be reduced to a dangerous head-on confrontation between Islamist parties and the incumbent governments. Yet secular parties—a broad term referring to organizations that do not embrace a political platform inspired by religious ideals—are clearly facing a crisis in the Arab world as they struggle for influence, relevance, and in some cases, survival. . . .

Voters see little reason to support secular parties that offer neither the patronage of government parties, nor the vision and social services of Islamist movements. As a result, they have become second-tier actors who cannot compete successfully for voter support. Their leaders, in turn, feel victimized by authoritarian governments that allow little legal space for free political activity and believe they cannot compete with the grassroots mobilization by the Islamist movements. . . .

The crisis of secular parties is emerging as a major obstacle to democratic reform in the Arab world. “The weakness of secular parties is leading to a curious blurring of the lines between government and opposition, with many secular parties looking to the government for protection against the rise of Islamists, even as they try to curb the power of those governments.”

Trying to think in a bit of a comparative context, the question is what the social and ideological basis of an Arab secular democratic political party would be. The answer, typically, is "labor unions and socialism" or else in the case of the US Democratic Party "labor unions and a high level of religious pluralism." Nationalism could also plausibly work. And, of course, the Arab world used to be shot through with secular socialist and nationalist parties -- Nasserism and Baathism and the like -- but the US didn't like it very much at the time. And there's the rub.

Neither Islamism nor Arab nationalism nor aggressive socialism are the sort of things the US government is likely to be enthusiastic about, but it's very hard to imagine what the social basis of support for the sort of political parties Americans usually say they want to see in the Arab world would be.