On May 4, the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Wilson Center co-hosted the first Rafik Hariri Debate on the Arab Transitions with Egyptian parliamentarian Amr Hamzawy and former Congresswoman Jane Harman to explore the question of where Egypt and other transitioning Arab countries are headed. Hariri Center Director Michele Dunne moderated the conversation.

As transitioning Arab countries struggle to consolidate revolutionary change with elections and constitutional reform, it is still unclear whether they will succeed in becoming democracies. Economies are in crisis, Islamists are dominating elections, former regime elements are resurgent, and civil society is under threat. Are revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya succeeding in delivering dignity and freedom, or are they being hijacked by illiberal forces?

Michele Dunne began the conversation by highlighting perceptions in Washington that the Arab revolutions have been hijacked by Islamist parties. Hamzawy acknowledged that Islamists are dominating elections in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. He said that the victories of the Muslim Brotherhood were no surprise, given the strength and organizational capacity of well-established movements that have successfully leveraged their social capital to win votes, but acknowledged that Salafis’ ability to mobilize so quickly was surprising and impressive. Hamzawy was optimistic that elements of the Islamist political scene – such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – are adopting increasingly moderate positions on the rights of women and minorities and remain committed to democratic procedures. However, the agendas of more conservative Salafi Islamist parties are vague at best, and have advocated illiberal educational reforms and restrictions on the rights of women.

Regarding U.S. policy toward the transitions, Hamzawy expressed concern that the United States is still stuck in an outdated bilateral relationship forged through decades of strategic and military cooperation with Mubarak’s regime, and looking for a new “strong man” through which to engage with Egypt. Hamzawy urged the United States to engage with the full spectrum of Egypt’s political forces, and not only with the parliamentary majority. Despite the electoral victory of Islamists in Egypt, Hamzawy was optimistic that liberals were regrouping and showing unprecedented unity, as demonstrated in their successful campaign to disband the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly chosen by parliament in April.

According to Hamzawy, progress is being made toward opening political space in Egypt and other transitioning countries, but long-term democratic change will require the fundamental reengineering of political institutions and the legal framework in which they operate. In Egypt, parliament still lacks adequate oversight of the other branches of government.

Jane Harman and Hamzay agreed that women were perhaps the clearest “losers” in the Arab transitions. In Egypt women have seen a regression in their political rights and representation since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, whose regime introduced a 64-seat quota for women in parliament. Removing that quota from the electoral law prior to Egypt’s post-Mubarak parliamentary elections resulted in an elected legislature with only a handful of women. Harman and Hamzawy agreed that non-Islamist political forces will need to defend existing personal status laws in Egypt against conservative reforms proposed by Salafi lawmakers that could undermine women’s rights.

Harman identified one of the greatest success stories of the Arab awakening as “the birth of the Arab citizen.” The electoral success of Islamists, while frightening to some liberals, has actually dealt a blow to violent fundamentalist groups like al-Qaeda. As elected members of parliament, Islamists were now subject to elections and accountability. Instead of using violence to promote their political agendas, they were using their clout in parliaments. On balance, Harman and Hamzawy agreed the transitions were headed in the right direction and deserve support from the United States.