DAVOS: New leaders from the countries of the Arab Spring sought to reassure their Western counterparts at the Davos forum that the rise of Islamist parties poses no threat to democracy.
Last year, when a wave of popular revolt swept the Middle East and North Africa, many in the West hoped it might herald a victory for liberalism.
Instead, wherever free elections have been held, well-organized Islamist parties have been the big winners, leading some to fear that the tyranny of secular autocrats might be replaced by repressive theocracy.
But Arab ministers and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in the snowbound Swiss ski resort of Davos insisted the Islamist parties pose no threat to the region’s fledgling multiparty systems.
An Islamist candidate for Egypt’s presidential elections, Abdel Moneim Abol Fotoh, said he welcomed the participation of the ultraconservative "Salafi trend" in Egypt, "because its presence will lead to greater pragmatism on their part."
When asked about the Islamists’ treatment of women, he was quick to point out the shortcomings in the West.
"It is true women were oppressed in our Eastern society but women were also oppressed in Western societies, where women are used in commercials as commodities. We need to give back women their dignity. We need to look at women as equal to men," he said, adding that more women should participate in political life across North Africa.
While all the panel participants supported free market economies, they expressed reservations over the wholesale adoption of Western models that had proved their shortcomings in recent years.
"We in Egypt need to review Western liberalism especially in the field of the economy," said Abol Fotoh. "Now that we have seen American young people go out with this Occupy Wall Street in order to demand a review of this economic system and to demand social justice, we need to do the same."
Egypt’s Amr Khaled, who runs the activist website Right Start Foundation, said that a survey of 1.4 million young people in the region had showed that unemployment was their number one concern.
"It depends on how fast the governments will find some solutions. Finding jobs for youth is the major issue," he said, pinning the success of the Arab Spring movement on economic progress.
By far the most populous country in the Arab World, Egypt is seen as key to regional stability, and scenes of thousands of frustrated young people in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria have spooked the regional elite.
Egyptian presidential candidate and former Arab League chairman Amr Moussa defended his homeland, but admitted the revolution was a work in progress.
"Egypt was badly run. We are in a transition period from full dictatorship, the rule of one man, to democracy," he said.
From many Arabs’ viewpoint, the success of religious-based groups is not surprising, and the suggestion that Islam and democracy are incompatible is insulting.
Moez Masoud, an Islamic scholar and preacher at Egypt’s Al-Tareeq Al-Sah Institute, said opinion polling showed people voted for Islamic groups in Egypt primarily because they were the most organized and effective.
"It wasn’t about bikinis or no bikinis, or whether to implement Sharia law. It got down to jobs, money and security, and the people wanted the best-organized groups," Masoud said.
"First you have to let the Arab world be for a while… Stop trying to impose secularism from afar," he advised his Western audience.
That advice was echoed by many others in conference rooms and hallway chats.
"Even if we don’t like what Islamists stand for, it’s a reality on the ground," said Shadi Hamid, of the Washington-based Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. The Obama administration "should find a way to live with political Islam. That should be the priority right now."
Hamid was on a panel on "Politics and Islam," one of numerous Davos sessions devoted to the Arab Spring.
In interviews and in public remarks, Arab delegates said the debate over Islam and democracy was a distraction at a time of deep economic crisis in Egypt and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Mohamed Najib Boulif, Morocco’s minister of administration and a member of the country’s new Islamist majority party, the Justice and Development Party, said, "There is no contradiction between democracy and Islam."
As an example of his Islamist group’s supposed moderation, Boulif noted that his was the only party to appoint a female minister to the coalition cabinet.
Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem said his country’s relatively peaceful transition towards elected Islamist-led rule after the turbulent days of revolution was a sign that the future looked bright.
"We confirmed in Tunisia by reality that it is possible to be Arab, Muslim and a democrat. So I think that Islamists are political actors like any other participants," he said.
"If we have a good democratic system we will have a moderate expression of Islam," he said, citing the overt religiosity of American political figures as an example of religion working safely within a pluralist system.
"In the United States there is a separation between church and state but, in the public sphere, religion is very active, and I think this is what will happen in the Middle East," he argued.
Nevertheless, several of the delegates who took part in Thursday’s debates in Davos warned that frustrations will grow if the democratic revolutions in the wider Arab world are not matched by economic progress.
Even in the relatively rich countries of the Gulf, the issue is the same.
"It is question to create a lot of jobs, to give those young boys an opportunity," said Ibrahim Dabdoub, CEO of the National Bank of Kuwait, admitting that he was not very optimistic about Egypt.
There was also some bitterness among Arab delegates that the support promised the region by the G8 and G20 rich world powers at last year’s Deauville summit has not lived up to expectations.
"The global economy is not supporting us," lamented Tunisian central bank chief Mustafa Kamel Nabli, saying of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s "Deauville Partnership": "Big words, very small action, I have to say."
More Arab leaders were due to attend Davos debates on Friday, including Tunisia’s new Islamist Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali. –Additional reporting by Agencies