DAVOS, Switzerland — Newly empowered Islamist leaders stood up for Arab democracy Friday, saying extremists need to be brought into the fold and chiding the West for objectifying women and income inequalities.
The prime ministers of Tunisia and Morocco, brought to office by elections prompted by region-wide protests last year, stressed their commitment to freedom of expression as they took the spotlight at the World Economic Forum.
A revolt against Tunisia's autocratic government a year ago set off similar anti-government movements around the Arab World. The changes in the region are being watched closely by business and political leaders at a gathering of the world elite at a Swiss ski resort.
The leaders were questioned about their commitment to democracy, free expression and treatment of women.
Morocco's new moderate Islamist Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane said the best way to deal with extremist youth "is to bring them out of the closet. It is not to keep them marginalized." He said bringing them into political life would moderate them.
"This is what happened to us. this is how we were, when we were young people we were very extremist in our views. We used to have these great hopes and dreams, but when we entered the political sphere we understood we had to be more realistic," he said.
He insisted his religious views were not threatening to democracy.
"If we have to eat together or dine together, the only thing I ask you is not to put alcohol on the table, is this considered as extremism?" he asked.
An Islamist candidate for Egypt's presidential elections, Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, said he welcomed the participation of the ultraconservative "Salafist 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 Aboul-Fotouh. "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."
Tunisia's Islamist prime minister, Hammadi Jebali, also spoke of ensuring social justice in a country with high youth unemployment and an economy still scarred by the uprising.
"If we want a real democracy then we have to take into account the entire population, democracy cannot ignore women. We don't believe we can build a society without half of its population.
Jebbali says his country can still be the "hope" for the Arab world despite its economic challenges.
"Every year 75,000 Tunisian graduates from universities join unemployed people, so this is a huge challenge ahead of us," he said. "Hopefully the hurdles will not prevent political evolution in our country."
Schemm reported from Rabat, Morocco.