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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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?
The 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…]
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…]
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.
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.
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…]
The New York Times reports: With the Muslim Brotherhood pulling within reach of an outright majority in Egypt’s new Parliament, the Obama administration has begun to reverse decades of mistrust and hostility as it seeks to forge closer ties with an organization once viewed as irreconcilably opposed to United States interests.
The administration’s overtures — including high-level meetings in recent weeks — constitute a historic shift in a foreign policy held by successive American administrations that steadfastly supported the autocratic government of President Hosni Mubarak in part out of concern for the Brotherhood’s Islamist ideology and historic ties to militants.
The shift is, on one level, an acknowledgment of the new political reality here, and indeed around the region, as Islamist groups come to power. Having won nearly half the seats contested in the first two rounds of the country’s legislative elections, the Brotherhood on Tuesday entered the third and final round with a chance to extend its lead to a clear majority as the vote moved into districts long considered strongholds.
The reversal also reflects the administration’s growing acceptance of the Brotherhood’s repeated assurances that its lawmakers want to build a modern democracy that will respect individual freedoms, free markets and international commitments, including Egypt’s treaty with Israel.
And at the same time it underscores Washington’s increasing frustration with Egypt’s military rulers, who have sought to carve out permanent political powers for themselves and used deadly force against protesters seeking an end to their rule.
The administration, however, has also sought to preserve its deep ties to the military rulers, who have held themselves up as potential guardians of their state’s secular character. The administration has never explicitly threatened to take away the $1.3 billion a year in American military aid to Egypt, though new Congressional restrictions could force cuts.
Nevertheless, as the Brotherhood moves toward an expected showdown with the military this month over who should control the interim government — the newly elected Parliament or the ruling military council — the administration’s public outreach to the Brotherhood could give the Islamic movement in Egypt important support. It could also confer greater international legitimacy on the Brotherhood.
It would be “totally impractical” not to engage with the Brotherhood “because of U.S. security and regional interests in Egypt,” a senior administration official involved in shaping the new policy said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic affairs.
“There doesn’t seem to me to be any other way to do it, except to engage with the party that won the election,” the official said, adding, “They’ve been very specific about conveying a moderate message — on regional security and domestic issues, and economic issues, as well.”
Some close to the administration have even called this emerging American relationship with the Brotherhood a first step toward a pattern that could take shape with the Islamist parties’ coming to power around the region in the aftermath of the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Islamists have taken important roles in Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt in less than a year.
“You’re certainly going to have to figure out how to deal with democratic governments that don’t espouse every policy or value you have,” said Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and recently joined with the ambassador to Egypt, Anne W. Patterson, for a meeting with top leaders of the Brotherhood’s political party.
He compared the Obama administration’s outreach to President Ronald Reagan’s arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. “The United States needs to deal with the new reality,” Mr. Kerry said. “And it needs to step up its game.”
Kerry often serves as a kind of surrogate Secretary of State for the current administration — the one who presents policy that the administration struggles to articulate itself. So, especially during an election year, it’s hardly surprising that he is being called on to explain why Washington is now reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood as the Islamist movement stands on the brink of gaining control of Egypt’s parliament.
But why liken this move to the realpolitik of dealing with the utterly undemocratic Soviet Union? The analogy is not only extreme but also offensive and unnecessarily antagonistic. The U.S. reached out to the Soviet Union at the same time as it hoped to witness its destruction. Is that the message that the U.S. now wants to send to the Middle East’s rising Islamists? That we have no choice but talk to them even while hoping for their demise?
The Economist looks at the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists represented by the Nour party, whose combined successes in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections give an overall majority to the Islamists.
Surrounded by well-wishers at his home on a narrow dirt street in the village of Nazla, Wagih al-Shimi insists his Nour party would have done even better if the Brothers had not cheated. Blind from birth and lushly bearded, Fayoum’s new MP is a doctor of Islamic jurisprudence, preaches in local mosques, and has a reputation for resolving disputes according to Islamic law.
“We owe our success to the people’s trust, to their love for us because we work for the common good, not personal gain,” says Mr Shimi. As for a party programme, he says his lot will improve schools, provide jobs and reform local government, introducing elections at every level to replace Mubarak-era centrally appointed officials. As for the wider world Mr Shimi is vague, except to say that Egypt should keep peace with any neighbour that refrains from attacking it.
The Brotherhood echoes this parochialism: its party’s 80-page manifesto mentions neither Israel nor Palestine. The two groups have more in common. The Brothers profess to share the Salafists’ end goal; namely, to regain the pre-eminent role for Islam in every aspect of life that they believe it once held. Some leading Brothers even describe themselves as Salafist in ideology. Many secular Egyptians, too, especially Coptic Christians, who make up an increasingly beleaguered 10% minority, see little difference between rival Islamists.
Yet within the broad spectrum of political Islam, the distinctions between two are telling. Muslim Brothers tend to be upwardly mobile professionals, whereas the Salafists derive their strength from the poor. The Brothers speak of pragmatic plans and wear suits and ties. The Salafists prefer traditional robes and clothe their language in scripture. The Brothers see themselves as part of a wide, diverse Islamist trend. The Salafists fiercely shun Shia Muslims. Asked what he thinks of Turkey’s mild Islamist rule, a Nour spokesman snaps that his party had nothing to take from Turkey bar its economic model.
Nour says it rejects Iranian-style theocracy, but equally rejects “naked” Western-style democracy. Instead, in what some Salafists see as a daring departure from previous condemnation of anything that might dilute God-given laws, it wants a “restricted” democracy confined by Islamic bounds. Yasir Burhami, a top Salafist preacher, says that his mission is to “uphold the call to Islam, not to impose it on people.” Still, he believes the party can convince Egyptians to accept such things as banning alcohol, adopting the veil and segregating the sexes in public because “we want them to go to heaven”.
Brotherhood leaders say instead that they must respect the people’s choice. Their party includes a few Christians. It worked hard to build a coalition with secularists, too, though most of its partners soon withdrew. Whereas Nour party leaders openly call for an alliance with the Brothers to pursue a determined Islamist agenda, the older group, with its long experience of persecution, is wary. It says fixing Egypt’s ailing economy should take priority over promoting Islamic mores. The Brotherhood would probably prefer a centrist alliance that would not frighten foreign powers or alienate Egypt’s army, which remains an arbiter of last resort.
In any case, a Brotherhood-led government is not in the immediate offing. Egypt’s generals, discomfited as anyone by the Islamists’ advance, seem determined to find ways to delay it.
The New York Times reports: In the aftermath of the vote, Egyptian liberals, Israelis and some Western officials have raised alarms that the revolution may unfold as a slow-motion version of the 1979 overthrow of the shah of Iran: a popular uprising that ushered in a conservative theocracy. With two rounds of voting to go, Egypt’s military rulers have already sought to use the specter of a Salafi takeover to justify extending their power over the drafting of a new constitution. And at least a few liberals say they might prefer military rule to a hard-line Islamist government. “I would take the side of the military council,” said Badri Farghali, a leftist who last week won a runoff against a Salafi in Port Said, northeast of Cairo.
A closer examination of the Salafi campaigns, however, suggests their appeal may have as much to do with anger at the Egyptian elite as with a specific religious agenda. The Salafis are a loose coalition of sheiks, not an organized party with a coherent platform, and Salafi candidates all campaign to apply Islamic law as the Prophet Muhammad did, but they also differ considerably over what that means. Some seek within a few years to carry out punishments like cutting off the hands of thieves, while others say that step should wait for the day when they have redistributed the nation’s wealth so that no Egyptian lacks food or housing.
But alone among the major parties here, the Salafi candidates have embraced the powerful strain of populism that helped rally the public against the crony capitalism of the Mubarak era and seems at times to echo — like the phrase “silent majority” — right-wing movements in the United States and Europe.
“We are talking about the politics of resentment, and it is something that right-wing parties do everywhere,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. They have thrived, he said, off the gap between most Egyptians and the elite — including the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood — both in lifestyle and outlook.
“They feel like they represent a significant part of Egypt,” Mr. Hamid said, “and that no one gives them any respect.”
Jack A. Goldstone writes: No doubt the most difficult task in the months ahead for Western leaders responding to changes in the Arab world will be to stick to their guns on democracy — that is, to accord elected governments and their leaders all the respect due to democratically chosen heads of state. This is because the elected governments will almost invariably be Islamist, hostile to Israel, and suspicious of the United States.
But really, what else could we expect? “Democratic” does not simply equate to pro-Western. If you tell people: “We have oppressed proponents of your historical religion for decades to create dictatorships for the sake of better relations with the West and Israel, and now we want you to choose your own government”, what else would people do than repudiate the pattern of the old dictatorships? And wouldn’t that repudiation more likely take the form of voting for well known and established parties that stood against the dictatorships, rather than for new parties with young faces that stand for such vague things as “secularism and liberalism?”
So let us start from the fact that an Islamist majority was always logically to be expected from free elections in Arab countries, and show no disappointment on that score. The crucial issue regarding the new regimes in Tunisia and Egypt is not that they are Islamist, but how will they act? How will they act toward other non-Islamist parties, and non-Islamic groups in society? How oppressive will they be toward women? How effective will they be on economic policy and science and technology? How will they manage popular hostility toward Israel? These are the issues that will determine the risks and success of these regimes.
Marc Lynch writes: “Why does every nation on Earth move to change their conditions except for us? Why do we always submit to the batons of the rulers and their repression? How long will Arabs wait for foreign saviors?” That is how the inflammatory Al Jazeera talk-show host Faisal al-Qassem opened his program in December 2003. On another Al Jazeera program around that same time, Egyptian intellectuals Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Fahmy Howeidy debated whether it would take American intervention to force change in the Arab world. Almost exactly seven years later, Tunisians erupted in a revolution that spread across the entire region, finally answering Qassem’s challenge and proving that Arabs themselves could take control of their destiny.
Throughout this year of tumult, Arabs have debated the meaning of the great wave of popular mobilization that has swept their world as vigorously as have anxious foreigners. There is no single Arab idea about what has happened. To many young activists, it is a revolution that will not stop until it has swept away every remnant of the old order. To worried elites, it represents a protest movement to be met with limited economic and political reforms. Some see a great Islamic Awakening, while others argue for an emerging cosmopolitan, secular, democratic generation of engaged citizens. For prominent liberals such as Egypt’s Amr Hamzawy, these really have been revolutions for democracy. But whatever the ultimate goal, most would agree with Syrian intellectual Burhan Ghalyoun, who eloquently argued in March that the Arab world was witnessing “an awakening of the people who have been crushed by despotic regimes.”
In March, Egyptian writer Hassan Hanafi declared that the spread of the revolutions demonstrated finally that “Arab unity” — long a distant ideal in a region better known for its fragmentation and ideological bickering — “is an objective reality.” This unified narrative of change, and the rise of a new, popular pan-Arabism directed against regimes, is perhaps the greatest revelation of the uprisings. Not since the 1950s has a single slogan — back then Arab unity, today “The People Want to Overthrow the Regime” — been sounded so powerfully from North Africa to the Gulf. This identification with a shared fate feels natural to a generation that came of age watching satellite TV coverage of Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon over the previous decade. Al Jazeera, since its rise to prominence in the late 1990s, has unified the regional agenda through its explicitly Arabist coverage — and its embrace of raucous political debates on the most sensitive issues.
Mohamed Awad, director of the Alexandria and Mediterranean Research Center, describes to Patrick Martin from Toronto’s Globe and Mail, a scenario that many in Egypt’s liberal secular elite must now dread:
“My fear,” said Dr. Awad, whose office is surrounded by models of Alexandria’s prospective future waterfront, “is that the more extreme Islamists, the Salafists, may eventually come to power.”
That could happen, he explains, if the country’s economy collapses in the next few months. “In that event,” he says, “there will be another revolution, a revolution of the poor, and this one will be very violent.”
Is he describing the threat of Islamist rule or the threat of popular rule?
Early election results from Egypt make it clear that the new parliament will be dominated by Islamists — mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood but with the main Salafist party making a stronger than predicted showing, pushing the largest secular group into third place.
A recent poll showed that 41% of Egyptians hope Egypt will emulate Saudi Arabia, while 53% favor a democratic civil state. But what these polls obscure is the fact that whoever governs, one of their overriding concerns will be that they can govern successfully and thus ensure their continued power.
Who can offer Egypt’s newly empowered politicians the most useful tuition? The Saudis or Turkey’s AK Party? (That’s a rhetorical question.)
Atul Aneja reports: Early counting in Egypt’s parliamentary elections appears to confirm the region-wide trend of Islamists — moderate, hard-line and some who are yet to be fully tested — emerging as the most potent force in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Following the first phase of elections which ended on Tuesday, counting in Luxor, Cairo and elsewhere is showing that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has solidly outpaced its rivals in many of the constituencies.
The ultra-conservative Al Nour party is also doing well in some districts. It is either leading over the other contenders or is in second place to the FJP.
Except in a few constituencies, non-religious parties are, so far, heavily trailing the Islamists, who are not contesting as a unified bloc. The FJP and Al Nour are not pre-poll allies, though the latter is open to participation in a coalition. The Al Nour comprises mainly Salafists, who seek to recreate a society based on pristine Islam.
The electoral picture, however hazy, that is emerging in Egypt, seems to amplify a political trend fast gathering momentum in West Asia and North Africa. Moderate Islamists have emerged as the most prominent political force in Tunisia and Morocco following recent elections. An Islamist assertion is also visible in Libya in the aftermath of the killing in October of Muammar Qadhafi. Some analysts say an Islamist political resurgence through the ballot can be traced to 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the architect of the so-called “Turkish model” of new-age Islam, triumphed in Turkey.
Despite the AKP’s Islamist roots, Turkey remains secular and has deeply engaged with moderate Islamists in Tunisia and sections of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Emile Nakhleh and Augustus R. Norton write: Misplaced fears about the implications of an Islamist sweep are often heard in Washington, where some media pundits have asked whether the Arab Spring is devolving into an Islamist Winter. But Tunisia’s election provides an instructive model on an alternative to that scenario. The election fostered a coalescence of Islamist and secular politicians. The victory of the Tunisian al-Nahda party, which won a 40-percent plurality, may be a harbinger for the coming of Arab political normalcy and the delegitimization of “Arab exceptionalism.’’ Al-Nahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has begun reaching out to secular groups to form a coalition government, a move that would not have happened before the demise of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
The pragmatic behavior of Islamist parties in national legislatures should be the litmus test as to whether Western governments should engage them during transition to democracy. Their legislative performance, not ideological platforms or interpretations of the sacred text, should be the metric by which to judge their credibility as mainstream political actors.
Islamist parties that have been part of governments in Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Turkey, and elsewhere have not threatened their countries’ national security and stability. On the contrary, they have been credible and legitimate defenders of good government and the rule of law, and strong proponents of tolerance and pluralism.
The lesson from the Tunisian elections should be equally clear to the remaining Arab authoritarian regimes. Dominating the political space, persecuting minorities, violating their peoples’ human and civil rights, and blaming foreign “agents and provocateurs” for anti-regime protests will no longer work. This regime narrative is no longer believable, whether in Syria, Bahrain, or Saudi Arabia.
What everyone in the West needs to remember is that when Egyptians or anyone else in the Middle East cast their votes for the Islamists, in most cases they are not making an ideological statement. They are doing what voters in all representative democracies do: picking out the candidates and parties with which they have the greatest affinity, which is to say, looking for representatives who appear to understand who they are meant to represent.