Category Archives: political Islam

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?


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…]


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…]


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.


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.


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…]


Forging ties with democratic Egyptian government is like reaching out to the Soviet Union?

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?


Hamas responds to the Arab Spring

The Washington Post reports: Buoyed by the success of Islamist movements in countries swept by the Arab Spring, Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, is showing signs of pragmatism as its sense of isolation fades.

The organization is jockeying to reposition itself amid shifting terrain in the Arab world. It is reported to be scaling down its presence in Syria, where its long-time patron, President Bashar al-Assad, is facing a popular uprising. At the same time, it is seeking to strengthen ties with Arab countries where moderate Islamists have made political gains.

Hamas officials are holding talks in Cairo this week with the rival Palestinian faction, Fatah, on implementing a reconciliation accord reached earlier this year, as some leaders of the organization suggest that it is ready for political pluralism at home and limiting violence against Israel.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, is planning his first official trip outside the territory since the militant group seized power there in 2007. According to an aide, Haniyeh plans to visit Turkey, Bahrain, Qatar and Tunisia.

The Islamist surge, say Hamas officials and analysts, has boosted the group’s confidence, giving it more room to maneuver.

“This is an Islamic area, and once people are given a fair chance to vote for their real representatives, they vote for the Islamists,” said Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza, referring to the ascendance of Islamist parties in recent elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. “We feel strengthened by popular support.”

For Hamas, a sense of validation has replaced a siege mentality after years of international boycott and blockade by Israel and by Egypt under former president Hosni Mubarak.

“The rise of the Islamists could be seen as game-changer for Hamas,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “Hamas no longer sees itself as a besieged island in a sea of hostility. This goes to the very psychology of the movement. . . . They feel that they have strategic depth now.”

On the domestic front, this has translated into a declared intention of following the model of the Islamist parties abroad, which have shown readiness to share power with secular and liberal parties in governing coalitions, and, in the case of Tunisia, have already struck such a deal.

The Islamists’ message of pluralism is now being echoed by officials of Hamas, which has mostly stifled dissent in the Gaza Strip since it took over the territory.

The example of the Islamist parties has had an impact on Hamas leaders and “opened their eyes to make coalitions with other Palestinian factions,” said Ghazi Hamad, deputy foreign minister of the government in Gaza. “This will create a new political Islam in which a coalition is the main goal, not to monopolize the regime. No one accepts one political color. The time of one-party rule has passed.”

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports: The Hamas militant group has agreed to join the Palestine Liberation Organization — a key step toward unifying the long-divided Palestinian leadership.

Hamas’ leader Khaled Mashaal on Thursday joined a committee that will prepare for elections to the PLO leadership.

Those elections are likely years away but Mashaal’s move means he will work with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the rival Fatah party.

The PLO is the umbrella group of the Palestinian independence movement.

Thursday’s development is an important step toward reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah — which have been split since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.

Separate elections in the West Bank and Gaza for a unified parliament are tentatively set for next year.


The success of Egypt’s Islamists marks a trend throughout the region

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.”


Democracy and Islam in the Arab elections

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.


Do the Middle East’s revolutions have a unifying ideology?

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.


The rise of the Islamists

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.


Can Islamism and feminism mix?

Monica Marks writes: In May, Tunisia passed an extremely progressive parity law, resembling France’s, which required all political parties to make women at least half of their candidates. As a long-repressed party, Ennahda enjoyed more credibility than other groups. It also had a greater number of female candidates to run than any other party, and strongly supported the parity law as a result.

Many Tunisian women developed a political consciousness in reaction to Mr. Ben Ali’s severe oppression of Ennahda in the 1990s. While their husbands, brothers and sons were in jail — often for reasons as simple as attending dawn prayers — these women discovered that they had a personal stake in politics and the strength to stand alone as heads of families. When the party was legalized in March, it found a widespread base of public sympathy and grass-roots support.

As the big winner in Sunday’s elections, Ennahda will send the largest single bloc of female lawmakers to the 217-member constituent assembly. The question now is how Ennahda women will govern. Are they unwitting dupes of Islamic patriarchy, or are they merely feminist activists who happen to wear head scarves?

After interviewing 46 female activists and candidates from Ennahda, I found that many turned to politics after experiencing job discrimination, arrests, or years in prison merely because they chose to wear the head scarf or because their families were suspected of Ennahda sympathies. For some of them, this election is as much about freedom of religious expression as anything else.

“I have a master’s degree in physics but I wasn’t allowed to teach for years because of this,” said a 43-year-old woman named Nesrine, tugging the corner of her floral-print hijab, a veil banned under Mr. Ben Ali but legalized since his departure. According to Mounia Brahim and Farida Labidi, 2 of the 13 members of Ennahda’s Executive Council, the party welcomes strong, critical women in its ranks. “Look at us,” Ms. Brahim said. “We’re doctors, teachers, wives, mothers — sometimes our husbands agree with our politics, sometimes they don’t. But we’re here and we’re active.”


Can the West stop worrying and learn to love the Islamists?

Tony Karon writes: Tunisia’s election and Libya’s celebration of the overthrow of Col. Muammar Gaddafi won’t have made for a happy weekend among those fevered heads in Washington who believe the West is locked in an existential struggle with political Islam: If anything, the Islamist tones of the Libyan celebrations, coupled with the Islamist victory in the Tunisian polls will have evoked the collapsing dominoes of Vietnam-era anti-communist metaphor.

“We are an Islamic country,” said Mustafa Abdel Jalili, leader of Libya’s Western-backed Transitional National Council in his speech proclaiming his country’s liberation on Saturday. “We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion.” As Jalili spoke of lifting a Gaddafi era ban on polygamy and called for an Islamic banking system (which bans charging interest on loans), he was greeted by thunderous chants of “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”). The character of Libya’s rebellion, at least among those doing the fighting rather than those doing the talking to Western governments, has been far more Islamist than its NATO backers may care to admit. Indeed, conspicuously absent from Jalili’s Benghazi liberation speech was Mahmoud Jibril, the Western-backed interim prime minister forced out at the behest of Islamist and regional militias, who accused him of trying to sideline them.

Jalili’s comments underscore the likelihood that a post-Gaddafi Libya will have a strongly Islamic character. Having emerged from a 42-year secular dictatorship, the smart money says that some version of political Islam will likely trounce any liberal rivals in the race to represent a national vision when a country riven by tribal and regional rivalries goes to the polls eight months from now.

In Tunisia, meanwhile, where some 90% of voters turned out to vote in the Arab rebellion’s first democratic poll, the only question remains whether the Islamist Ennahda party wins an outright majority, or must settle for a plurality of the vote that will requires it to lead a coalition government. Opposition parties had conceded on Monday, even before the count was completed, it was clear that Ennahda had won by far the largest share. The party’s leaders made clear, however, that they intended to seek a coalition.

There’s good reason to suspect that Tunisia’s electoral outcome will be repeated in an Egyptian poll: The main political contest there may turn out to be the one between the Muslim Brotherhood and its more radical Salafist challengers than between the Brotherhood and the secular liberals.

There’s no inherent contradiction between Islam and democracy — the range of political parties in the Muslim world claiming to be guided by Islamic values ranges from Turkey’s moderate, modernizing AK Party to the radical fundamentalist Salafis. Post-Saddam Iraq has been ruled by coalitions led by Shi’ite Islamist parties since its first election in 2005.

Democratically elected governments in the Arab world — most of which are likely to include a strong Islamist component, particularly when emerging from years of secular dictatorship — are highly unlikely to follow U.S. policy on Israel or Iran, but that doesn’t preclude them establishing pragmatic, cooperative relationships with the West. And if Washington’s yardstick for judging Arab political outcomes was the extent of support they yield for its own positions on Israel and Iraq, the U.S. would have to rely exclusively on dictators and monarchs.

Jonathan Steele writes: Having launched what became known as the Arab spring, Tunisia has now led the region by holding a clean election with an enthusiastic turnout and highly encouraging results. The three parties that have come out on top in the most democratic of north African states have no links with the capital city’s upper middle class or those sections of the business community that benefited from the ousted Ben Ali dictatorship. They both have a tradition of struggling for democratic values.

As in post-Mubarak Egypt, there was reason to fear that the old regime would re-emerge in Tunisia with new faces, but this now seems unlikely. The party that has emerged from the poll most strongly is An-Nahda (Renaissance), which suffered massive repression under Ben Ali and has won great respect for its sacrifices. This party of modern democratic Islam campaigned hard on the two issues that concern most Tunisians: corruption and unemployment, particularly youth unemployment.

While several smaller secular parties tried to manipulate Islamophobia – a relatively easy card to play given the official state-controlled media’s demonisation of the Islamists over several decades – their efforts have failed. Voters had their first chance to listen to An-Nahda’s candidates and they were not put off by what they heard. An-Nahda made special efforts to show that it wanted an inclusive government of national unity and would respect all points of view. It also reached out to voters in the more impoverished interior, making it clear it would not be just a party of the Mediterranean coast as Ben Ali’s regime had been.

The Associated Press reports: A moderate, once-banned Islamist party in Tunisia was on track Tuesday to win the largest number of seats in the first elections prompted by the Arab Spring uprisings, according to partial results.

The Tunisian electoral commission said the Ennahda party has won 15 out of 39 domestic seats so far in a 217-member assembly meant to write a new constitution. Together with the results announced Monday from Tunisians living abroad, Ennahda now has 24 out of 57 seats total, or just over 42 percent.

The final results from Sunday’s elections could boost other Islamist parties running in elections in North Africa and the Middle East.


Erdoğan tell Arabs his secularism remarks mistranslated

Today’s Zaman reports:

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reiterated his response to Arabs who were discontent with the prime minister’s call to build a secular state, saying that his words were mistranslated and that secularism does not mean being against the religion.

Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which was successful in marrying Islam and democracy, has become a model for much of the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and other political groups such as Tunisia’s long banned Ennahda movement, as they prepare for the first free vote since decades-old rule in Egypt and Tunisia were ended earlier this year.

Erdoğan spoke about secularism in Egypt earlier this week, saying Turkey prefers a model of secularism that is not identical to the “Anglo-Saxon or Western model,” without elaborating. “Individuals cannot be secular, states are. A devout Muslim can successfully govern a secular state,” Erdoğan then said.

Erdoğan, while speaking in Tunisia about secularism, said his “secularism” term was translated as “irreligiousness” in Egypt that caused a confusion among Arabs. He offered an explanation for the Muslim Brotherhood’s anger at his words in Cairo and said his words were misunderstood because of a translation mistake.

Asked about his secularism remarks in Libya on Friday during a press conference with Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Erdoğan reiterated that his remarks were mistranslated and that secularism is not about being an enemy of religion.


Islamists emerge in force in new Libya

The Washington Post reports:

In the fight against Gaddafi’s forces, the Islamist militants played an important role among the rebels’ rag-tag forces because of their experience in battles abroad. With a place in the new Libya, most have said that their days as militants are over. The largest of the organizations, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, has re-branded itself as the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change.

Some Islamists are blunt in expressing resentment about fellow rebels.

“Secularists don’t like Islamists,” said Ismail Sallabi, an influential cleric who is among nine leaders commanding rebel forces in eastern Libya. Before the revolution, he said, he had never held a weapon. “They want to use Islamists in the fighting stage and then take control.”

“I’m proud to be an Islamist, and this is a historic chance for the West to understand Islamists up close,” Sallabi said.

Libya is a conservative Muslim nation, and its future government will probably reflect that; the governments of Egypt and Iraq are among Arab states that base their governance on Islamic law. While Gaddafi’s government tolerated little in the way of activism, Libya’s Islamist groups appear to have emerged from his reign as the best-organized among political groups, and secularists among Libya’s new leaders appear determined not to alienate them.

One early step intended to rein in Islamists is the creation of a Supreme Security Committee, which has put the most powerful rebel commander, former militant Abdelhakim Belhadj, under civilian control. But in an interview, Ali Tarhouni, a liberal who heads the committee, also sounded a conciliatory note.

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group is “not al-Qaeda. They don’t have any intention of fighting the West or Europe. This is a group that basically carried arms to topple Gaddafi’s regime,” Tarhouni said. “Their brand of thinking is not geared towards the instability of the rest of the world.”

Even before Gaddafi was ousted from power last month, Islamists and secularists on the Transitional National Council had clashed this summer on whether Islamic law should be the primary source for legislation. Initially, secularists prevailed, winning approval of a provision that established Islamic law as one guidepost for a future Libya, but not the dominant one.

Days later, however, Islamists led by the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the absence of secularists from Benghazi to win passage of a revised provision that made Islamic law the principal law of the land, said a council member involved in the process. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the fraught subject.

One prominent Islamist, Abdul Razag el-Aradi, a nationalist who is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, described that approach as a compromise intended to appease more conservative Islamists while stopping well short of an approach that would transform Libya into an Islamic country.

“There are two kinds of people we in Libya will completely reject: extremist Islamists and extremist secularists,” Aradi said.


Britain’s arrest of Sheikh Raed Salah

Jonathan Cook writes:

He is an Islamic “preacher of hate” whose views reflect “virulent anti-Semitism” and who has funded Hamas terror operations, according to much of the British media.

The furore last week over Sheikh Raed Salah, described by the Daily Mail newspaper as a “vile militant extremist”, goaded the British government into ordering his late-night arrest, pending a fast-track deportation. The raid on his hotel, from which he was taken handcuffed to a police cell, came shortly before he was due to address a meeting in the British parliament attended by several MPs.

The outcry in Britain against Sheikh Salah has shocked Israel’s 1.3-million Palestinian citizens. For them, he is a spiritual leader and head of a respected party, the Islamic Movement. He is also admired by the wider Palestinian public. The secular Fatah movement, including Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, were among those condemning his arrest.

Many Palestinians, like millions of Muslims in the Middle East, revere Sheikh Salah for his campaign to protect Muslim and Christian holy places from Israel’s neglectful, and more often abusive, policies. They struggle to recognise the British media’s characterisation of him as an Osama Bin Laden-like figure.

Most in Israel’s Jewish majority would not have been aware of Sheikh Salah’s supposed reputation as a Jew hater either, despite their hyper-vigilance for anything resembling anti-Semitism. True, he is generally loathed by Israeli Jews, but chiefly because they regard his brand of Islamic dogma as incompatible with the state ideology of Jewish supremacism. They fear him as the leader of a local Islam that refuses to be tamed. Those Israelis who conclude that this qualifies him as an anti-Semite do so only because they class all pious Muslims in the same category.