Islamism, the Arab Spring, and the failure of America’s do-nothing policy in the Middle East

Shadi Hamid writes: In the years leading up to the Arab Spring, Islamist parties developed something of an obsession with the role of Western powers in supporting democracy in the Arab world — or, more likely, not supporting it. Islamists were fighting on two fronts: not just repressive regimes, but their international backers as well. The ghosts of Algeria lingered. In January 1992, Algeria’s largest Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), found itself on the brink of an historic election victory — prompting fears that the military was preparing to move against the Islamists. In the tense days that followed, FIS leader Abdelkader Hachani addressed a crowd of supporters. “Victory is more dangerous than defeat,” he warned, urging them to exercise restraint to avoid giving the army a pretext for intervention. But it was too late. The staunchly secular military aborted the elections, launching a massive crackdown and plunging Algeria into a civil war that would claim more than 100,000 lives.

That authoritarian regimes and activist militaries could count on American and European acquiescence (or even support) — as they did in 1992 — made Arab regimes seem more durable than they actually were, and the task of unseating them more daunting. During the first and forgotten Arab Spring of 2004-5, Algeria repeatedly came up in my interviews with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt and Jordan. Perhaps over-learning the lessons of the past, Islamist parties across the region, despite their growing popularity, were careful and cautious. They made a habit of losing elections. In fact, they lost them on purpose. This ambivalence and even aversion to power prevented Islamists from playing the role that opposition parties are generally expected to play. It was better to wait, and so they did.

It’s been almost five years since the start of the Arab Spring, but one conversation still stands out to me, despite (or perhaps because of) everything that’s happened since. Just two months before the uprisings began, Egypt was experiencing what, at the time, seemed like an especially hopeless period. I was in the country for November elections that proved to be the most fraudulent in Egyptian history. After winning an unprecedented 88 seats in parliament in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t permitted by Hosni Mubarak’s regime to claim even one seat. But this movement, the mother of all Islamist movements, accepted its fate in stride. “The regimes won’t let us take power,” Hamdi Hassan, the head of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, told me during that doomed election campaign. What was the solution, then? I asked him. “The solution is in the ‘Brotherhood approach.’ We focus on the individual, then the family, then society.”

“In the lifespan of mankind, 80 years isn’t long,” he reasoned, referring to the time that had passed since the Brotherhood’s founding. “It’s like eight seconds.” [Continue reading…]

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What most people get wrong about political Islam

Shadi Hamid writes: Political scientists, myself included, have tended to see religion, ideology, and identity as “epiphenomenal” — products of a given set of material factors. These factors are the things we can touch, grasp, and measure. For example, when explaining why suicide bombers do what they do, we assume that these young men are depressed about their own accumulated failures, frustrated with a dire economic situation, or humiliated by political repression and foreign occupation. While these are all undoubtedly factors, they are not — and cannot be — the whole story.

But the role, and power, of religion in the modern Middle East is more mundane than that (after all, the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not think about becoming suicide bombers). “Islamism” has become a bad word, because the Islamists we hear about most often are those of ISIS and al-Qaeda. Most Islamists, however, are not jihadists or extremists; they are members of mainstream Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood whose distinguishing feature is their gradualism (historically eschewing revolution), acceptance of parliamentary politics, and willingness to work within existing state structures, even secular ones. Contrary to popular imagination, Islamists do not necessarily harken back to seventh century Arabia.

Why do Islamists become Islamists? There are any number of reasons, and each Brotherhood member has his or her own conversion story or “born-again” moment. As one Brotherhood member would often remind me, many join the movement so that they can “get into heaven.” To dismiss such pronouncements as irrational bouts of fancy is tempting. But, if you look at it another way, what could be more rational than wanting eternal salvation?

Islamists aren’t just acting for this world, but also for the next. Muslim Brotherhood and Brotherhood-inspired organizations aim to strengthen the religious character of individuals through a multi-tiered membership system and an educational process with a structured curriculum. Each brother is part of a “family,” usually consisting of 5 to 10 members, which meets on a weekly basis to read and discuss religious texts. For many members, it is quite simple and straightforward. Being a part of the Brotherhood helps them to obey God and become better Muslims, which, in turn, increases the likelihood of entry into paradise. This belief doesn’t mean that these more spiritually-focused members don’t care about politics; but they may see political action — whether running for a municipal council seat or joining a mass protest — as just another way of serving God. [Continue reading…]

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How my Cairo bookclub changed my view of Islamists

Rabab El-Mahdi writes: In November 2011 during a protest on Mohamed Mahmoud street in downtown Cairo, a friend asked me if I would start a reading group for some politically engaged young people. I answered that I had read and disliked Reading Lolita in Tehran and so had no interest in imitating its protagonist, who had set up a book club in her home and encouraged the members to read and discuss western literature as the means to emancipation. My friend had not understood what I’d meant and so I conceded.

I had expected five people but 15 arrived instead, all in their 20s and early 30s; most of them were what the media and politicians labelled “Islamists”. My label? “Leftist academic and activist.”

We met weekly, reading together Vladimir Lenin, Frantz Fanon, Ali Shariati, Talal Asad, Edward Said and Lila Abu Lughod among others. We talked about Marxism, postcolonial studies, Islam, feminism, resistance and revolution and discussed contemporary politics at length, but as the weeks passed we also cooked together, watched movies, and spoke about their families and love lives.

As a student of postcolonial studies and an Arab woman in western circles, I have often had to confront other people’s assumptions about me, and most of my academic work has been about deconstructing such stereotypes. So I thought myself above labelling, presumptuous conclusions and artificial divisions – until Asmaa, Awatif and Mariam, three stay-at-home mothers, asked to join the group and I was forced to confront my own deeply rooted assumptions. [Continue reading…]

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Can Turkey survive Erdoğan?

Graham E. Fuller writes: On 7 June Turkey’s democratic system will be deeply tested in a fateful parliamentary election; at stake is preservation of rule of law and liberal democracy against an increasingly authoritarian-minded President.

Bottom line: if President Erdoğan’s AKP party is able to win big, the entire system of separation of powers in Turkey will likely reach breaking point. Erdoğan will have gained the carte blanche he seeks to mold, shape and steer the state any direction he wants in a semi-legal form of one man rule. And this comes at a time when his presidency has become ever more erratic, arbitrary, error-prone, corrupt, vengeful and out of touch.

I find it surprising to be writing this. My book published one year ago, “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Leadership in the Middle East,” examined the extraordinary first decade of the AKP party in Turkey under Prime Minister Erdoğan’s leadership. Up until 2011 it may have been the best government Turkey has ever had since it adopted democratic rule in the 1950s. Erdoğan’s successes can be measured in terms of deeper democratization, astonishing economic growth and prosperity, expansion of social services, the successful removal of the military from politics, the forging of an expansive and visionary foreign policy (with new emphasis on independence from failing US policies in the Middle East), and a modern reconsideration of what an Islamic-leaning government can mean in a democratic order. At that time Turkey became the preeminent model of success for a region that possessed little leadership, vision or progress.

A great degree of the credit for Turkey’s foreign policy successes — a huge expansion of the range of Turkish ties, interests and outreach — belongs to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the chief architect of these policies. Under Erdoğan’s AKP Turkey underwent profound, and, I argue, irreversible change in reinventing itself as a major regional power extending its activities and interactions across all of Eurasia, the Middle East, Africa and even into Latin America. Turkey accepted and normalized its Islamic heritage. The AKP had won three successive elections with growing proportion of votes each time — unprecedented in Turkish political history due to broad public satisfaction with the party’s accomplishments.

But it was not to last. After ten years in power, few governments anywhere can remain immune from corruption. [Continue reading…]

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The secularization of Turkey

Mustafa Akyol writes: Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, Turkey’s “Islamization” has been a recurrent theme in the media. Over the past two years — during which time Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president and AKP leader, has combined increasingly authoritarian rule and an overtly Islamist narrative — this theme has become more common and assumed greater validity. It is often asked whether Turkey is turning into “another Iran,” and most commentators take it for granted that, at the very least, Turkey is becoming more “conservative.” Turkish academic Volkan Ertit, a doctoral candidate focusing on the sociology of religion at Radboud University, in the Netherlands, emphatically argues otherwise.

In his new book, “The Age of Anxious Conservatives: Turkey, That Moves Away From Religion” (Endiseli Muhafazakarlar: Dinden Uzaklasan Turkiye), Ertit presents ample evidence suggesting that the power of religion is actually declining in Turkish society. To Ertit, the “secularization of society” means the decline in the “impact of the individual’s faith in the sacred on the actual conduct of life.” In this regard, he thinks Turkey is certainly on a secularization path. If the trend were toward Islamization, he argues, Turkey should have experienced the following:

  • Increased religiosity among young generations than in older generations
  • Decline in the visibility of homosexuality
  • Decline in the rate of premarital flirtation
  • Decline in the rated of premarital and extramarital sex
  • Increase in the belief in supernatural beings
  • Greater preference for dress that does not reveal body shapes
  • Greater impact of the “sacred” on daily affairs

What one sees in Turkey, however, Ertit says, is the opposite. [Continue reading…]

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Are more Arabs becoming extremists or are extremists becoming more extreme?

Koert Debeuf writes: With the humiliating defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 War against Israel, most non-Islamist ideologies died. Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism, socialism and secularism died on the battlefield, as well as the liberalism of his predecessors. The Arab world fell into an identity crisis, opening the way for the only remaining ideology: Islamism or conservative political Islam.

Saudi Arabia used this momentum and its newly gained petrodollars after the oil crisis in 1973 to spread Salafism or Islam without modernity. The Muslim Brotherhood too regained ground. It was founded in 1928, four years after Turkey’s Atatürk abolished the Caliphate. Its main goal was (and continues to be) reinstalling this Caliphate. This could only be achieved by getting rid of the Western-backed Arab dictators.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 were a golden opportunity for the Islamists. Knowing that the young revolutionaries were too unorganized and idealistic, Islamists took the power. The entire Arab World looked to Egypt, where for the first time, the Muslim Brotherhood had the leverage to execute their plan and organize an Islamist society. They miserably failed.

The psychological effect on the Arab World cannot be underestimated. With the exception of Ennahda in Tunisia that moderated its course, but still lost the elections, it turned many Islamists in other Arab Awakening countries more extreme. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt convinced them that democracy and Islamism are not the way forward. The Arab World fell into a new identity crisis.

The Islamic State offered one answer to this crisis by going further, reinstalling the Caliphate and abolishing this other European decision, the national borders of the Middle East. It is an appealing project to disillusioned Islamists and adventurers trying to escape from their own personal identity crisis. But after all, the numbers of foreign fighters and supporters are rather small.

Much more important is what is happening to the silent majority in the Arab World. And here the opposite trend slowly starts becoming clear. Fewer taxi drivers place a copy of the Koran visibly in their car. More women are taking off their veil. The young revolutionary generation is also attending prayers at the mosque less often. Most of them only denounce the political Islam preached at many mosques. Others go further and flirt with atheism. The Egyptian government doesn’t like this trend and in Alexandria even a special police taskforce has been created to arrest atheists. [Continue reading…]

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Understanding the drivers of radicalization in Syria

Syria Deeply: Syria has not traditionally been a seat of extremist Islam. What has contributed to the radicalization of the country? What’s driving it now?

Nader Hashemi: First and foremost, it’s the conflict itself. It’s not a coincidence that we are seeing the spread of Islamic radicalism in Syria as a direct result of the barbarity of the Assad regime, and as a result of a conflict that in my view is borderline genocidal.

In the midst of the chaos, mayhem, bloodshed and crimes against humanity, you don’t produce liberal, democratic opinion. You produce the antithesis of it: an environment that reflects the social conditions of chaos and anarchy.

There is also an ideological battle taking place in the Middle East today with respect to different political currents of Islamism, and it’s not a coincidence that we are seeing the upsurge and the rise of radical Islamism of various forms, with the most radical being ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, after the crushing of the Arab Spring and the democratic openings it unleashed.

Syria is a case study of the deep and intimate relationship between the closure of political opportunities and democratization, and in the aftermath of their demise, the upsurge of the rise of radical Islamic tendencies. In the early days of the revolution, in the first six months of 2011, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra weren’t present inside Syria. The early formation of radical jihadism in Syria started to take root and gain currency as political openings and possibilities for political change started to diminish. Human-rights violations and repression feed into a narrative of radical extremism and they undermine the prospects for more democratic and more moderate expressions of political Islam. [Continue reading…]

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The success of Tunisian secularists might not be advancing democracy

Monica Marks writes: A self-styled, secular, modernist party called Nidaa Tounes won against the Islamist Ennahda party in the Tunisian election this week. For many, the subsequent headline – “Secularist party wins Tunisia elections” – will seem more impressive than the fact Tunisia just completed its second genuinely competitive, peaceful elections since 2011.

Indeed, in a region wracked by extremism and civil war, the secularists’ victory will strike many as further proof that Tunisia is moving forward and is the sole bright spot in a gloomy region. Some may prematurely celebrate, yet again, the death of political Islam, arguing that Tunisians achieved through the ballot box what Egyptians achieved through a popular coup, rejecting the Brotherhood and its cousin-like movements once and for all. We should exercise caution, however, in labelling Nidaa Tounes’s victory part of a seamless sweep of democratic achievements, or seeing Sunday’s vote as a clear referendum against all varieties of political Islam.

Despite feeling kinship with the party because of its secular label, westerners understand surprisingly little about Nidaa Tounes, mainly because they’ve tended to hold the magnifying glass of critical inquiry up to Islamists but not secularists over the past three years. Counter-intuitively, Nidaa Tounes’s internal structure is noticeably more authoritarian than Ennahda, which boasts representative decision-making structures from its grassroots to national leadership. [Continue reading…]

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Shibley Telhami: ‘We are what we have to defend’

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Assad: ‘The project of political Islam has failed’

AFP reports: The “project of political Islam has failed,” Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad said on Monday, calling for the separation of religion from politics, state television said.

Assad’s regime has been battling an uprising that has come to be dominated by Islamists, ranging from moderates to radicals, who want to see Syria run as an Islamic state.

“The project of political Islam has failed, and there should be no mixing between political and religious work,” he said in comments on the 67th anniversary of the founding of his Baath party.

These are the observations of a man whose life has been saved by the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah. If Assad really opposes the mixing of political and religious work, how could two of the region’s preeminent proponents and practitioners of political Islam still be his chief allies?

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Egypt’s military coup empowers jihadists who reject democracy

n13-iconThe New York Times reports: The military overthrow of a freely elected Islamist fulfilled the predictions of jihadist ideologies that power could never be won through democracy, and they have pounced on the opportunity to proclaim their vindication.

International terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, began calling for Muslims inside and outside of Egypt to take up arms against the government. Now a growing number of experienced Egyptian jihadists are heeding that call, often under the banner of Sinai-based militant groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, according to United States and Egyptian officials involved in counterterrorism. At least two Egyptians who returned from fighting in Syria have already killed themselves as suicide bombers, according to biographies released by the group.

Egyptian military officials say they have also captured Palestinians, Syrians and other foreigners among the terrorists in Sinai. But an American counterterrorism official said Washington believed Ansar Beit al-Maqdis “is largely Egyptian, including some who fought in other conflict zones before returning home,” along with “a relatively small contingent of battle-hardened foreigners.”

The jihadist homecoming appears to have provided the resources and expertise behind a quickening series of attacks that have far exceeded the abilities previously displayed in Egypt. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has shown it can build and remotely detonate large bombs in strategic locations, gather intelligence about the precise timing of movements by their targets, record their own attacks and manage the complicated maintenance of an advanced portable surface-to-air missile — all suggesting combat experience.

“The number of attacks has gone up certainly over the past six weeks,” John O. Brennan, the director of the C.I.A., told a House hearing this week. “And some senior-level Egyptian officials have been killed at the hands of these terrorists.”

Egyptian military officials say they are determined to defeat this new wave of terrorists just as they defeated the insurgency that flared in the 1990s.

Back then, militants who insisted on armed struggle — including Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian-born Al Qaeda leader — eventually gave up on the utility of armed struggle at home, refocusing on attacking Egypt’s Western sponsors.

But the ouster of Mr. Morsi appears to have changed that calculus.

“Zawahri and others have been saying from the beginning that they believed the military would come back, that the military and the West are not going to allow an Islamist government to stay in power,” said Aaron Zelin, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who tracks jihadist messages.

The Brotherhood, which has publicly denounced violence for decades, once helped combat militancy by channeling Islamist opposition into the political process. But the new government has now outlawed the Brotherhood. [Continue reading…]

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A political deal in a deeply divided Tunisia as Islamists agree to yield power

The New York Times reports: Compromise has been in short supply since Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring nearly three years ago. But this small North African nation has once again broken new ground with a political deal between longtime enemies among the Islamists and the secular old guard.

The deal, announced over the weekend, aims to put in place an independent caretaker government until new elections next year, marking the first time Islamists have agreed in the face of rising public anger to step back from power gained at the ballot box.

Tunisia had been careening toward chaos and political paralysis after two assassinations this year and an inability to finalize a new constitution, and it remains fragile and divided. But months of laborious back-room haggling led by two political leaders helped, at least for now, to avoid the kind of zero-sum politics that have come to define the post-Arab Spring tumult in Egypt, Libya and the battlefield of Syria.

Beji Caid Essebsi, a former prime minister who leads a new secular-minded political party, Nidaa Tounes, and Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, have starkly different visions of the country’s future. But since Tunisia’s political crisis flared this year, the two men have met one on one at least five times to try to find a political solution. [Continue reading…]

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What U.S.-Iranian rapprochement could bring

Roger Cohen writes: If in Turkey it has taken 90 years for a democracy to evolve that is not anti-Islamic, then the 30 months since the Arab Spring are a mere speck in time. Moreover, as Mustafa Akyol points out in his book “Islam Without Extremes,” Turkey, unlike most other Muslim countries, was never colonized, with the result that political Islam did not take on a virulent anti-Western character. It was not a violent reaction against being the West’s lackey, as in Iran.

Now Iran, under its new president, Hassan Rouhani, is trying again to build moderation into its theocracy and repair relations with the West. Such attempts have failed in the past. But the Middle Eastern future will look very different if the U.S. Embassy in Tehran — symbol of the violent entry into the American consciousness of the Islamic radical — reopens and the Islamic Republic becomes a freer polity.

Nothing inherent to Islam makes it anti-Western. History has. The Islamic revolution was an assertion of ideological independence from the West. As power in the world shifts away from the West, this idea has run its course. Iranians are drawn to America.

The United States can have cordial relations with Iran just as it does with China, while disagreeing with it on most things. A breakthrough would demonstrate that the vicious circles of the Middle East can be broken.

I believe the U.S. Embassy in Tehran will reopen within five years because the current impasse has become senseless. With Iran inside the tent rather than outside, anything would be possible, even an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

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The Salafist democratic trend

Aaron Y. Zelin looks at the emerging democratic trend among Salafists, most recently expressed by Sheikh Salman al-Awdah in Saudi Arabia.

“Important questions remain about Salafi groups’ shift to democracy. Is it pragmatic or a true ideological commitment to democratic principles?” But who, one might ask, sets the benchmark for such a commitment? A Democratic Party tied by the hip to the Israel lobby? Or a Republican Party that repeatedly tries to disenfranchise minority voters? Maybe Americans should not get too sanctimonious about who qualifies as a real democrat.

The Muslim Brotherhood has so far emerged as the clear political winner from the popular uprisings that have seized the Arab world. In Egypt and Tunisia, its affiliated political parties have either won power outright in democratic elections. But the Brotherhood isn’t the only movement mixing faith and politics in the new Middle East: Salafis — hardline conservatives who model their lives on Prophet Mohamed and the first three generation of Muslim leaders following his death — are setting aside years of theological opposition to democracy to participate in the political game.

This sea change was driven home earlier this week when Saudi Salafi heavyweight Sheikh Salman al-Awdah took to his Twitter feed and Facebook page to proclaim: “Democracy might not be an ideal system, but it is the least harmful, and it can be developed and adapted to respond to local needs and circumstances.” Although Awdah notably made his announcement on his English and not Arabic social media platforms, where his audience numbers in the millions rather than the tens of thousands, the sentiment is still positively Churchillian — echoing as it does the late British prime minister’s maxim: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Awdah’s pronouncement is significant due to his history and popularity within the Salafist milieu. He was one of the key leaders of Saudi Arabia’s sahwa (“awakening”) movement, which butted heads with the House of Saud most prominently during the Gulf war in the early 1990s. During those years, key Saudi religious scholars and sahwa activists signed two petitions admonishing the Saudi royals for their reliance on the United States, and calling for the creation of a shura (“consultative”) council that would grant greater authority to the religious establishment to determine whether legislation was truly in line with Islamic law.

The House of Saud viewed these letters as a direct threat to its power, and consequently arrested Awdah and other sahwa figures in 1994. Awdah would not be released until 1999. Although he has not been as overt in his criticisms of the regime since his release, he is not part of the official religious establishment and has a level of independence, which has afforded him the ability to maintain a large following without being viewed as a lackey of the government.

Osama bin Laden was one of the young Saudis deeply affected by Awdah’s stand against the Saudi regime in the early 1990s. The al Qaeda chief viewed him as an intellectual mentor, and allegedly told his former bodyguard Abu Jandal that if Awdah had not been imprisoned, he would not have had to raise his voice up against the Saudi ruling family.

The al Qaeda leader’s admiration highlights Awdah’s influence among not only mainstream Salafists, but some of the more radical wings of the movement.

Actually, what this highlights is the radicalizing effect of political repression in Saudi Arabia.

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Why Islamists will just keep winning

Rami G Khouri writes: A persistent question we have heard during each Arab uprising across the Arab world in the past year has been, “What happens after the regime falls? Who takes over power?” This is usually asked with a tone of foreboding, with concern that bad or unknown political forces will assume power. Most worry revolves around the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists assuming power, on the grounds that they are the best organized political groups.

Sometimes this leads frightened people to conclude that it is better to stick with the governments we have – despite their flaws – rather than risk the unknown or an Islamist takeover of power. We hear the same thing said about Syria these days, as many ponder the possible or, I sense, likely, fall of the Assad family dynasty of 42 years.

It is time for analysts to get over their worries and adjust to the overwhelming lesson from the first year of the ongoing Arab uprisings: The transition from autocracy to democracy, and from authoritarianism to pluralism, in the Arab world must necessarily pass through a phase of Islamist rule or of coalition governments in which Islamists play a role.

This is one conclusion we should draw from the track record of the past year, during which time Islamists have won pluralities or majorities in every election held (Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Kuwait, most significantly, with others to follow in Libya, Yemen and elsewhere). The victory of Islamists in Kuwait’s parliamentary elections last month was the most telling performance, providing useful insights into why we need to get used to the fact that Islamists will hold executive power in many countries for some years ahead.

The Feb. 2 Kuwaiti elections followed the emir’s dissolution of Parliament after repeated public protests demanding a parliamentary investigation of the prime minister for alleged corruption and bribery. In line with the rest of the Arab world, Kuwaitis gave the opposition – dominated by Islamists – 34 of 50 seats in parliament. Wealthy and stable Kuwait is a world away from the poverty and social stresses of Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, yet here the Islamists also emerged as the leading voice of the citizenry. [Continue reading…]

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