Islamists ready for their close-up?

After governments fall in secular Egypt and Tunisia, Islamist parties are poised to enter the political mainstream.

Feminist Nawel el-Saadawi arguing in Tahrir Square that both sexes ought to be able to pray together in mosques [EPA]

For several weeks, a global audience has been glued to computer and television screens, fascinated by the compelling sight of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In both countries, long-ruling dictators were ultimately deposed amid cries of freedom, accountability and democracy.

This narrative of a long-suffering people finally toppling the head of the regime oppressing them is the stuff of Hollywood movie trailers, an epic billed as an irresistible story of human triumph. And Americans – even ones typically disinterested in foreign politics – certainly bought the ticket to see the show, with Facebook pages and rallies in several US cities showing that they supported protesters in Cairo and Tunis.

And then, panic. With two secular presidents deposed – Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt – who would fill the power vacuum?

The obvious answer for many seems to be, simply: The Islamists. And in the post-September 11 world, this has triggered a flopsweat of paranoia and discomfort.

Glenn Beck, a high-profile Fox network commentator, said that the success of Islamist governments would spell the end of peace in Europe and capitalism in the US.

“It is difficult to deny … that radicals, Islamasits [sic], communists, socialists will work together against Israel, against capitalism, and they’ll try to work together to overturn stability,” said Beck in a broadcast in February, charging that the uprisings in North Africa were also to blame for the pro-labour protests in the state of Wisconsin.

Also, Thursday marked the start of the US House of Representatives hearing on “radicalised Islam”, focusing on “theo-political” Islam. The hearing was centred on the testimony of Zuhdi Jasser, the founder of the American Islamic Forum of Democracy who told NPR on Tuesday that the real danger is “the intoxicant” that is “the supremacism of political Islam”.

The Daily Mail, fretting about shuttering brothels in Tunisia, ran an article on February 26 saying that, “faster than you could scream ‘Allahu Akbar’, hundreds of Islamists raided Abdallah Guech Street armed with Molotov cocktails and knives, torching the brothels, yelling insults at the prostitutes and declaring that Tunisia was now an Islamist state.”

Al-Nahda, Tunisia’s leading Islamist party has issued statements distancing itself from the fringe groups targeting bordellos and the recent slaying of a Polish priest.

Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University, told Al Jazeera that there are two fundamental problems with how the West views the question of potential Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia.

The first is that there is a perception that in Muslim countries, there are only two options for leadership: Dictators or radical Islamists.  

“So we portray the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Nahda as radical Islamists,” said Ramadan, whose grandfather, Hassan al Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood. 

“The intrinsic dynamics and the trends within political Islam are not known, so we put all the people in the same box, in the same stream, and that’s completely wrong. It’s just to justify what has been the rhetoric of the dictators for years and accepted by the West. that, ‘If it’s not us, the dictators, then it’s going to be them, the violent extremists.'”

The other issue is that most Westerners can’t grasp that while the movements in Egypt and Tunisia weren’t Islamic revolutions, many of the protesters in those countries were “mobilised as Muslims” – some of them moderate, some of them conservative.

“To be accepted in the West, we have to remove Islam from it … this is where the West should get a better understanding of Islam,” said Ramadan.

“They (Muslim) want freedom as the West wants freedom. They want dignity as the West wants dignity. They want democratisation as the West is promoting democratising.”

Ed Husain, an expert on Islamist movements and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera that the US fear of Islamist states is hardly surprising, given that Washington has viewed the region through a very narrow lens for the past 30 to 35 years. 

“The US, and not just media, but the policy makers and others, view the Middle East through three prisms: One is of Israel, the second is of oil and the third is of terrorism,”  said Hussein.

Then there’s the question of how relatively secular societies would function under Islamist governments. There have been numerous media reports in outlets such as the Washington Post and  AFP news agency on fears that freedoms associated with secular governments will be revoked under potential Islamist rule in Tunisia and Egypt. 

But what would change if the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the al-Nahda party in Tunisia swept the upcoming polls in those countries? Is that really even a likely outcome? And, if so, what sort of social changes would that spell out for those societies?

These are the early days

To start with, the revolutions are far from over. In Egypt,  there are still protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the country is still without a constitution – while in Tunisia strikes, protests and unrest continue to unfold as the pro-democracy movement calls for the election of a constituent assembly.

“This is all still playing out in real time … from day to day, things seem to be rather fluid,” Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Al Jazeera.

 Polls: Americans and Egyptians

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll: 

*58 per cent of Americans worry Islamist governments would not back US interests.

*32 per cent feel the US should unconditionally support democracies in the Middle East.

A 2010 Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project survey  showed:

*Among Muslims in Egypt, 48 per cent felt that Islam “played a large role in their nation’s political life”.

* 49 per cent said “it played only a small role.” 

*59 per cent said they wanted a democratic form of government.

“There are risks associated with both countries falling under a strong man – it would not be surprising to see that. What I think is heartening is that we are seeing real democratic, let’s call them grass roots and green shoots. But … it’s important to stress that no one saw this coming – not the Egyptian intelligence, not US intelligence. It happened spontaneously. “

Paul Salem, director of the Middle East Centre at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it’s far too early to know which direction the Muslim Brotherhood will go just yet. What’s clear at this point, however, is that this was not the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolution. 

This, he said, represents a “sea change” in the sense that “public opinion in the biggest Arab country, has stood up, and on Al Jazeera TV .. . that what they want, is a pluralist, liberal, democratic system which respects human rights, communal rights, pluralism, economic justice, accountable government – that’s what they’re about.”

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is finding its footing in post-Mubarak era and has yet to clarify where it stands on key issues. For example, in recent weeks it has alternately said that it would dissolve Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and that it would honour it.

So it’s clear that even within a single Islamist group – let alone among the many  – there is a tremendous diversity of thought, between the various gradations of the moderate and the conservative as well as between the younger and older generations.

But George Joffe, a research fellow at Cambridge University, where he specialises in the Middle East and North Africa, said that the process of participating in a democracy “domesticates ideologies”.

“Currently, the Muslim Brotherhood is a gerontology, meaning that its leadership is very old. They are primarily concerned with doctrinal issues,” said Joffe.

“They don’t have a coherent project, which is why they’ve been outclassed by recent events.”

He said internal divisions will prompt the Muslim Brotherhood to form a political party – where doctrine will play less of a role – and move away from being a social movement, as it is seen now. 

The (secular) sky is not (yet) falling

If nothing, the recent events have shown us that while the Muslim Brotherhood is one of the most organised groups, it typically “accounts for 15 to 20 per cent of participants, no more,” said Amina Elbendary, an assistant professor of Arabic and Islamic civilisations at the American University in Cairo.

“Many of us believe that when fair elections are held, the Muslim Brotherhood will win considerable seats, and will play and important role … once political parties can freely form, we will witness a plethora of parties.”

Salem figured that the odds of Islamist parties taking power in Egypt and Tunisia, particularly during the immediate transitional period are “low, although not negligible”.

“I think it’s low for a number of reasons. First, is that the uprisings were not Islamist uprisings, so public opinion has staked out a fairly new and broad position for itself, which is quite different from the Islamist position,” said Salem, who added that this was key, as over the past 30 years, it was “assumed that the Islamist position must be the public’s position.”

This view has been partly reinforced with events such as Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, the 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections, when the banned Muslim Brotherhood party made major gains, as well as the elections in Gaza the following year, when the Islamist Hamas party, won majority rule.

But the Islamist parties weren’t the primary driving forces in uprisings in the recent and ongoing uprisings.

 Tunisian protesters call for a secular state after the murder of a priest and verbal attacks on Jews [EPA]

“Secondly, in Egypt and in Tunisia, much of the regimes … would favour participation in parliament and perhaps in government participation by Islamist parties, but they would not favour and would try not to allow an Islamist sweep.”

In order to consolidate the gains brought about by the removal of dictatorships, Islamist parties need to be “modest, or certainly, restrained” said Salem.

Joffe suggested that an Islamist government in either North African country seems unlikey.

“I would say in the short to medium term, there’s no chance of that occurring,” said Joffe, mostly because the “level of support is not sufficient. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has less than 30 per cent support, and al-Nahda has been out of circulation for years.”

He sees much of the talk of an Islamist takeover as paranoia, and says that those who say that Islamists states are a certainty in Egypt and Tunisia have “failed to observe that Islamist movements as such played no part at all” in the uprisings in those countries, which, he said, were the “consequence of the demonisation of political Islam as a systematic and existential threat”.

But Husain said that the Muslim Brotherhood is bound to be the leading party in the short term, as it has over 80 years of history there, with the network and resources that come with it.  

The party, he said, is poised to do better than others.

“There’s a reason for people to be suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, but Mohamad Badia, a relative hardliner in the organisation, has already said that he’s not interested in an Islamist government, but a civilian government,” said Husain, adding that other members have also said they’d like to be part of a broader coalition.

While the Muslim Brotherhood has said that it does not see Egypt with a Western-style democracy, the organisation has said that it embraces the idea of democracy, with Islamic tenets at its core.

Why fear an Islamist state?

Within Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the al-Nahda party, was met not only with supporters at the airport in Tunis upon returning after spending 21 years in exile – he was also met with secularists, waving signs that read, “No Islamism, no theocracy, no Sharia and no stupidity!”

But Ghannouchi has compared al-Nahda to the Turkey’s Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – or AKP party – which includes an Islamic faction but is not a hardline Islamist party. He also told Al Jazeera in no uncertain terms that his party “cannot be compared to the Taliban or Iran” and that he’s “no Khomeini”, referring to Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

“I think this very narrow understanding of what’s happening is to once again nurture a state of fear and mistrust towards all the opposition forces”

Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University

“I think that for the Muslim Brotherhood, (al-)Nahda and others, the only way for us in the West or anywhere else to deal with them is to let them be involved in the political process and then to challenge them when it comes to policy and implementation,” said Ramadan, who added that just as far-right parties are tolerated in Western governments, so should Islamist parties be in Egypt and Tunisia.

“If you repress them, if you put them in jail, you are in fact nurturing the radicalisation that you don’t want.”

Besides, said Ramadan, al-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood hardly represent extremist Islamic thought – they are in fact considered “beytrayers” by extremist groups, because both parties are “legalists and non-violent”.

Turkey is also the example both Salem and Joffe use to make the point that the idea of Islamist government does not run counter to the notion of individual rights. In fact, Joffe points out Turkey is negotiating to join the European Union, something that would be impossible without having a democracy and respecting human rights.

Even though rights groups, such as the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women are on guard for any move to retrograde women’s rights, Husain does not see a threat to women and minority rights in the country. He described Ghannouchi as a progressive, and said he’d sat in on meetings where the the al-Nahda leader went “out of his way to reprimand the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for its rigidity”. 

“Ghannouchi is a believer in a woman being a head of a state, so that’s where he is, and he’s years ahead of the Egyptian … Muslim Brotherhood, who sometimes have very conservative tendencies.”

Still Husain also points out that the Muslim Brotherhood has a good relationship with Egypt’s Coptic Christian community, although it has said in the past that it does not support the idea of a Copt becoming president.

Joffe said that there’s no chance of an Islamist party changing the status of women in Tunisia, when women’s rights have made steady gains since gaining suffrage in 1956, but that Egypt is a different matter.

“Egypt is a much more conservative society – the changes there may well be due to the patriarchal nature of men rather than to the Islamist movement itself,” said Joffe. 

“That isn’t going to change, simply because of the nature of the political parties.”

Indeed, those particpating in International Women’s Day rally in Cairo on Monday were met with groups of men opposing the march, some of whom shoved women, saying their activities were un-Islamic. But Joffe doesn’t seem too concerned about a dawn of new, hardline governments, mostly because the Muslim Brotherhood is factionalising and that moderate factions will not tolerate the idea of trying to suppress women through law.

Egyptian women have already started pushing back, working to find a way into the new government. And there are also reports published and broadcast in outlets such as The Los Angeles Timesand the CBCwhich point to the role of women in the Egyptian uprising as a turning point for women’s rights there, empowering them to find a place in society, shoulder-to-shoulder with men.

“There is a strong civil society in Egypt, which already, even before January 25, has pushed the Muslim Brotherhood to reformulate its ideas and concepts, especially with regards to women and minorities,” said Elbendary.

“It is inevitable that further pressures in the future will encourage the Muslim Brotherhood to develop their ideas and programme further.”

Ramadan said that what’s become clear through the haze of the ongoing revolts is that Islamist groups are “not really in touch with what is happening in the society with the young generation. So the risk of a very traditional and conservative approaches is there”. However, he said that it’s up to the parties themselves to show, on the ground, that they respect equal rights for men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

Schanzer too said there there are “signs that warrant optimism in both countries” and that if the people will it, they could push for constitutions that protect the rights of women and minorities while having an Islamist head of state.

Coalitions and fringe movements

The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nahda have said that they want to part of a coalition governments. In the case of Tunisia’s al-Nahda movement, which Salem describes as a “softer” Islamic movement, this seems less contentious, as Ghannouchi’s reputation is that of a progressive.

“I don’t think that the twitter, Facebook, tattoo generation of young Egyptians that essentially overthrew the Mubarak regime will sit around and wait for some fundamentalist regime to appear.”

Ed Husain, Council on Foreign Relations

“I think that political groups that are part of the various political Islamic movements are inevitable partners in future democratic governments in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere,” said Steve Clemons, the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

“Their ability to lead a government will be based upon their deal-making skills with other parts of that political system. And most importantly, I think that to be trusted to lead, they will need to show an ability to negotiate and compromise and to respect those who are part of the political minority. But they will definitely be in the equation.”

With its more conservative views and decades-long baggage, it may be hard to see how the Muslim Brotherhood could finesse being part of a coalition.

“I think we are long overdue in seeing the Muslim Brotherhood and other parts of political Islam be given the chance to participate in democratic structures,” Clemons told Al Jazeera, adding that making the group “feel that they are stakeholders, hopefully diminish radicalisation of some of their followers”.

Besides, the Muslim Brotherhood is well aware of how it is perceived, which, said Salem, is why they are not fielding a presidential candidate in the upcoming elections.

Taking the Turkish model into account, Salem points out that in aligning itself with Mohamed ElBaradei, himself without a strong following in Egypt, the party might succeed in increasing its base.

Husain, meanwhile, said he’s concerned that once the Muslim Brotherhood has a parliamentary presence, other hardline groups will criticise them for being too moderate.

“We saw this in Bangladesh, we saw this in Pakistan, we’re seeing this in Indonesia … we will see a greater contesting of Islamists trying to out-Islam one another – you know, who’s more pure, who’s more Islamic.”

In weighing the possibilities, Schanzer said that Egypt and Tunisia could, potentially, go in three different directions – they could revert  back to military-backed dictatorships, could form democracies or Islamist government. They could also form combinations of the above.

Hijacking a revolution

So it’s not outside the scope of possibility that both Tunisia and Egypt might end up with Islamist governments. Given that the population in both countries is predominantly Muslim, would that be such a catastrophe?

Though secular, Israel is considered a Jewish state, where only a Jew could be head of state, and in the UK, only a Christian could occupy that position. So if faith can play a role in statehood, then what would make an Islamist leadership in Tunisia and Egypt so alarming?

“A lot Muslims do not want a religious-based government, let alone non-Muslims … and in Egypt and Tunisia, one didn’t get the sense of any sweeping sentiment at all, that these Muslims wanted an Islamist government,” said Salem.

But within Egypt, the fear of having an Islamist take-over is seen as “rather exaggerated, and has been for a number of years,” said Elbendary, adding that while both Tunisia and Egypt have a history of Islamist political organisations “which have great grassroots support”, that in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is “not the only power”.

Husain too said he doesn’t think an Islamist government has a lasting chance in Egypt.

“I don’t think that the twitter, Facebook, tattoo generation of young Egyptians that essentially overthrew the Mubarak regime will sit around and wait for some fundamentalist regime to appear,” said Husain.

Schanzer is more circumspect on the issue, and said it’s not clear how people would respond to the formation of a hardline Islamist government. 

“It depends what kind of system emerges,” said Schanzer.

“If it’s a repressive system that brutalises people who come out in protest of their government, then I think it would take some time to amass the requisite forces to challenge the government again. I think it’s important that we remember that the people of Egypt are both exhilarated and exhausted.” 

Follow dparvaz on Twitter.

Source: Al Jazeera

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