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Resurgent Arab Islam need not be unsettling

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  December 11, 2011 06:01 AM

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In the wake of the youth-directed “Arab Spring,” which rocked the Middle East to its core and felled autocratic governments in several countries, Islamic political parties are poised for an historic resurgence across the region — and that is neither surprising nor necessarily alarming.

Popular mass demonstrations, “Days of Rage,” have been the hallmarks of the season that dislodged dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and exposed the fragility of fierce but unpopular regimes across the Arab world. Youthful demonstrators in quest of dignity, hungry for jobs, and fed up with corruption formed the vanguards.

But because Arab rulers did not allow serious opposition parties, the best organized opposition groups were often Islamist movements. While they did not launch the Arab Spring, they lent resilience and discipline to the demonstrations. These movements are deeply insinuated in the contours of daily life in Arab societies, and now are emerging as early victors in what Arabs are calling al-sahwa (the revival).

The successes of Islamic parties inspire consternation and alarm in some US policy circles. Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution worries that these parties will not embrace democracy. Like former Israeli defense minister Moshe Arens, he suggests that the Arab Spring is likely to become a long Arab Winter as Islamic parties gain power and then thwart hopes for substantial reforms and freedom. But these groups are not the extremists that critics fear, and Islamist political parties deserve the opportunity to deliver on the mandate they’ve been granted at the polls.

It is crucial to note that mainstream Islamic parties in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco are not your grandfather’s Islamists. Their views about human rights, toleration, and the legitimacy of democracy have evolved in encouraging directions in the past two decades.
Serious debates about earlier episodes of both failed and successful political change have been wide-ranging in Islamist circles. These include reflecting on the army coup that thwarted an Islamist victory in Algeria nearly two decades ago; the failure of violent jihadist tactics, not least by the widely despised Al Qaeda; and the exemplar of non-Arab Turkey, where a democratically elected Islamist party has been in power since 2002. While there are certainly radical dissenters, the mainstream is politically pragmatic and fully capable of embracing the give and take of democratic life.

Electoral victories of Justice and Development in Morocco and al-Nahda party in Tunisia confirm the powerful resurgence of political Islam in post-autocratic societies. And results from the first round of Egyptian elections for two-thirds of the seats in the People’s Assembly indicate the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party obtained 36.6 percent of the vote.

This means the Brotherhood’s party will lead a coalition government in Cairo when the complicated three-stage election concludes in two months. The religiously conservative Salafi al-Nour Party got about a quarter of the vote, which surprised party leaders and many Egyptian and foreign analysts. But the Muslim Brotherhood said it would form a coalition government only with liberal parties, not with the Salafis.

Many Egyptian liberal activists, including presidential candidate Muhammad ElBaradaei, have expressed apprehension that by getting almost a fourth of the vote in the first round, the Salafis might push for a conservative social and political agenda — banning music, liquor, and certain types of literature, and restricting minority and women’s rights.

ElBaradei also said that, with over 60 percent Islamists, the new People’s Assembly is not a true reflection the Egypt that toppled the Mubarak regime. Election results made it obvious the Freedom and Justice Party was well-organized and campaigned effectively whereas the liberal coalition, including the “generation of the uprising,” was woefully splintered and ran an unconvincing political campaign.

The struggle now shifts from party politics to the writing of the Egyptian constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are demanding that the People’s Assembly should form the committee charged with writing the constitution. Liberals, like ElBaradei, are leaning toward having the generals who now wield political power play a larger role in shaping the constitutional committee as a countervailing force to the Islamists.

As the Arab revival surges on, it is likely that Islamic-inspired groups will gain a major share of political power in Yemen and Syria — and perhaps even in Jordan and Bahrain. Despite the strenuous efforts of Saudi Arabia to stem the tides of change through influence and money, the pathology of authoritarian rule suggests continuing vulnerability to mass protests and resistance.

But now, having won elections, these parties will need to govern. The challenges facing popularly elected governments in the Middle East are formidable, especially job creation and economic needs. Chanting “Islam is the solution” will not do the trick.

Of course, there will be a political honeymoon for these new governments — a “night of honey,” as Arabs call the wedding night. But there will be no bliss unless the victors can deliver. This means the new governments often will be obliged to embrace compromise and deal-making — or face repudiation by an electorate that now knows how to institute political divorce.

Arab publics are repudiating a strong executive — whether president or king — in favor of parliamentary democracies. In presidential republics, the 2011 upheavals have signaled a desire to replace a powerful president with an independent prime minister and a parliament with legislative powers. They also have demanded a civilian government, an end to the mukhabarat (security) state, and constitutional reform. Even the privileged status of the military now is being questioned — especially in Egypt, where the prerogatives of the generals had been off limits for debate.

The transition to democracy in Egypt could face several risks that could derail it. They could come from terrorist organizations and radical Salafi groups, which do not believe in democracy, or from entrenched militaries ready to thwart any attempts to undercut their economic and power status. Sectarianism, which has been fomented by regimes in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, poses still another potential risk on the democratization path.

Yet, despite these looming hazards, mainstream Islamic political parties that remain committed to pluralism, inclusion, and civil rights are poised to play a constructive role in combating sectarianism, radicalism, and militarism. They should be afforded the opportunity to do so.

Emile Nakhleh is former director of the political Islam strategic analysis program at the CIA. Augustus R. Norton is a professor of anthropology and international relations at Boston University.

Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images: Egyptian women vote in the run-off of the first round of parliamentary voting in the Cairo neighbourhood of al-Manial on Dec. 5.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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