Political Islam poised to dominate the new world bequeathed by Arab spring

| February 13, 2012 | Comments (0)

Among the potent symbols of the Arab spring is one that has been less photographed and remarked on than the vast gatherings in Tahrir Square. It has been the relocation of the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood, the once banned party, now set to take the largest share of seats in Egypt‘s new parliament.

Before May this year they were to be found in shabby rooms in an unremarkable apartment block on Cairo’s Gezira Island, situated behind an unmarked door. These days the Brotherhood is to be found in gleaming new accommodation in the Muqatam neighbourhood, in a dedicated building prominently bearing the movement’s logo in Arabic and English.

Welcome to the age of “political Islam“, which may prove to be one of the most lasting legacies of the Arab spring. It is not only in Egypt that an unprecedented Islamist political moment is playing out. In the recent Tunisian elections the moderate Islamist Ennahda party was the biggest winner, while Morocco has elected its first Islamist prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane.

In Yemen and Libya, too, it seems likely that political Islam will define the shape of the new landscape.

None of which should be at all surprising. Indeed, if elections in Egypt and Tunisia had been held at any other time in the past two decades, the same result would almost certainly have ensued, reflecting both the levels of organisation of Ennahda and the Brotherhood and the countries’ cultural, economic and social dynamics.

“It was a change that was supposed to happen a long time ago,” says Omar Ashour, who lectures on the subject of political Islam at Exeter University and is currently in Cairo.

So what, precisely, does the rise of electoral Islamist politics mean for the Middle East and North Africa?

“Islamism is a term that has been used to describe two very different trends,” wrote Maha Azzam, an associate fellow at Chatham House, in a recent paper on the implications of the Arab spring for British foreign policy earlier this year.

“First, [it describes] the non-violent quest for an Islamic-friendly society based on the ‘principles of Islam’, which can involve a more liberal application of Islamic teachings and tradition or a more strict interpretation. Second, Islamism is also associated with violent extremism, most notably that of al-Qaida in the promotion of terrorism.”

Azzam, like a number of experts, is firm in the belief that, if the Arab spring has demonstrated anything about Islamism today, it is how those cleaving to the second, violent definition have become ever more marginalised in the Arab world.

Speaking to the Observer last week, Azzam said that, while it was “too early to say” how the policies of the Islamist parties thrown to the forefront of the Arab spring would play out in the region’s present transformation, Islamist parties, for now at least, were looking to the centre.

“In Tunisia, Ennahda was always more open-minded and with a more liberal attitude towards secular politics. Now we have the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt leaning more towards the centre.”

In Tunisia there has been a firm disavowal by the founder of Ennahda, Rachid Ghanouchi, of the Iranian theocratic model in favour of the Turkish one – represented by the moderate Islamist AKP of President Abdullah Gül and the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

While it has its critics, that Turkish Islamist model has seen an essentially pragmatic approach to the country’s largely secular institutions that has sought to avoid conflict with the military while attempting to raise both living standards and the economy.

If the example of Turkey is seen as a way forward, the case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt vividly illustrates the huge challenges facing the newly resurgent Islamist parties as they attempt to govern. “It has learned from what happened in Algeria and also in Gaza with Hamas’s conflict with the west,” said Ashour.

Despite that, he believes that the Brotherhood will have to negotiate a difficult period of democratic transition in which the generals cling on to “power but not legitimacy” and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice party, dominates the new parliament with a “popular mandate but little power”.

Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Doha Centre, has suggested strongly that the Brotherhood will concentrate on economic and social policies, rather than religious and cultural rhetoric.

The Freedom and Justice party, which includes a minority of Christian Copts, has gone out of its way to say it seeks a constitution that respects Muslims and non-Muslims, will not impose Islamic law and is committed to a pluralistic and democratic Egypt.

In the midst of this challenge, and with Egypt’s economy on the floor, the Brotherhood will operate in an entirely new political landscape, where a strong showing in the polls by the more fundamentalist Salafist al-Nour party exerts a gravitational pull on one side, while liberal secularists and Egypt’s middle classes and business community push for their own agenda.

It is this, perhaps, that explains the somewhat contradictory pick-and-mix affair that is the Freedom and Justice party’s “manifesto” as revealed in statements and releases – designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

It insists it has no objection to women and Christians standing for any government position except the presidency.

Economically, the party appears to be attempting to steer a middle course. It supports free markets and private ownership, while insisting that the state needs to provide protection for underprivileged groups and asking trade unions to desist from action that might damage the country’s fragile economy.

In the most controversial areas of sharia law and women’s rights, the Brotherhood has insisted that women should participate in politics, while the state should be a “civil one”, led neither by the military nor clerics, but informed by the “makased” – the underlying objectives of sharia.

Maha Azzam also believes they will face “external pressures” that will affect how their policies and identity develop. “If there was an attack on Iran, for instance, we might see a more radical voice. The same goes if the Muslim Brotherhood feels as though it is being ostracised by the west. And at home they have huge problems ahead as well. The economy is a huge problem.” Despite all this, Azzam believes, the Brotherhood has recognised the need to make incremental progress.

“They want a civilian society and they don’t want Scaf [the military junta], but they are saying: ‘One step at a time’. They are playing it extremely well, which is in keeping with their approach and strategy. It is what allowed them to survive for so long. It is not just that they are adaptive, they have a goal in mind.”

All of which, as journalist Issandr El Amrani wrote in the wake of the election results in Egypt on his Arabist blog, “has profoundly depressed most educated, middle-class Cairenes … who had hoped that the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak would be followed by a relatively liberal democracy that would be inclusive of moderate Islamists.

“Among my Egyptian friends (most decidedly on the liberal side) there is now tremendous worry about a future in which politics is ruled on the one hand by identitarian Islamist politics and on the other by a populist, hyper-nationalistic army. I don’t think it has to be so, and we could very well see a transition to a democratic (but not liberal) system which allows for rotation of power.

“Personally,” Amrani concludes, “I think that there can be a positive outcome here: if the Muslim Brothers are serious about consolidating electoral democracy and work hard on addressing that issue, there will be other elections for those that disagree with their conservative views (or foreign policy, or economic liberalism) to make their case.”

THE ISLAMIST WAVE

EGYPT The Muslim Brotherhood is in line to win 40% of votes. It is religiously conservative, but rejects violence while insisting on the need for a transition to civilian rule. It hopes to form a unity government with more liberal parties.

MOROCCO The Justice and Development party elected last month models itself on Turkey’s moderate Islamist government, describing its politics as a “progressive approach to Islam” focusing on social justice and economic issues.

TUNISIA The Ennahda party says its model is Turkey’s AKP, which was itself influenced by the writings in exile of Ennahda founder Rachid Ghanouchi. Won 40% of seats in recent elections. Opposed to sharia law and rejects comparisons with Saudi Arabia and Iran or with the Taliban.

TURKEY Turkey’s AKP, or Justice and Development party, led by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right), is a model for Islamist movements. It has overseen an economic resurgence. It insists it is non-confessional and democratic, but critics say it harbours an Islamist agenda.

YEMEN Al-Islah, the main Islamist opposition party, has been locked in conflict with forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh. It makes up 40% of the Joint Meeting party, a coalition of opposition groups. Critics fear it would herald a fundamentalist Yemen.

LIBYA The new National Gathering for Freedom, Justice and Development – named with a nod towards Turkey’s Justice and Development party – was formed in November. Likely to garner broad support

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