A Political Reality


Those who support democracy must welcome the rise of political Islam

From Tunisia to Egypt, Islamists are gaining the popular vote. Far from threatening stability, this makes it a real possibility

Wadah Khanfar

Andrzej Krauze 2811

Illustration by Andrzej Krauze

Ennahda, the Islamic party in Tunisia, won 41% of the seats of the Tunisian constitutional assembly last month, causing consternation in the west. But Ennahda will not be an exception on the Arab scene. Last Friday the Islamic Justice and Development Party took the biggest share of the vote in Morocco and will lead the new coalition government for the first time in history. And tomorrow Egypt’s elections begin, with the Muslim Brotherhood predicted to become the largest party. There may be more to come. Should free and fair elections be held in Yemen, once the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh falls, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, also Islamic, will win by a significant majority. This pattern will repeat itself whenever the democratic process takes its course.

In the west, this phenomenon has led to a debate about the “problem” of the rise of political Islam. In the Arab world, too, there has been mounting tension between Islamists and secularists, who feel anxious about Islamic groups. Many voices warn that the Arab spring will lead to an Islamic winter, and that the Islamists, though claiming to support democracy, will soon turn against it. In the west, stereotypical images that took root in the aftermath of 9/11 have come to the fore again. In the Arab world, a secular anti-democracy camp has emerged in both Tunisia and Egypt whose pretext for opposing democratisation is that the Islamists are likely to be the victors.

But the uproar that has accompanied the Islamists’ gains is unhelpful; a calm and well-informed debate about the rise of political Islam is long overdue.

First, we must define our terms. “Islamist” is used in the Muslim world to describe Muslims who participate in the public sphere, using Islam as a basis. It is understood that this participation is not at odds with democracy. In the west, however, the term routinely describes those who use violence as a means and an end – thus Jihadist Salafism, exemplified by al-Qaida, is called “Islamist” in the west, despite the fact that it rejects democratic political participation (Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, criticised Hamas when it decided to take part in the elections for the Palestinian legislative council, and has repeatedly criticised the Muslim Brotherhood for opposing the use of violence).

This disconnect in the understanding of the term in the west and in the Muslim world was often exploited by despotic Arab regimes to suppress Islamic movements with democratic political programmes. It is time we were clear.

Reform-based Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, work within the political process. They learned a bitter lesson from their armed conflict in Syria against the regime of Hafez al-Assad in 1982, which cost the lives of more than 20,000 people and led to the incarceration or banishment of many thousands more. The Syrian experience convinced mainstream Islamic movements to avoid armed struggle and to observe “strategic patience” instead.

Second, we must understand the history of the region. In western discourse Islamists are seen as newcomers to politics, gullible zealots who are motivated by a radical ideology and lack experience. In fact, they have played a major role in the Arab political scene since the 1920s. Islamic movements have often been in opposition, but since the 1940s they have participated in parliamentary elections, entered alliances with secular, nationalist and socialist groups, and participated in several governments – in Sudan, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria. They have also forged alliances with non-Islamic regimes, like the Nimeiri regime in Sudan in 1977.

A number of other events have had an impact on the collective Muslim mind, and have led to the maturation of political Islam: the much-debated Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979; the military coup in Sudan in 1989; the success of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front in the 1991 elections and the army’s subsequent denial of its right to govern; the conquest of much of Afghan territory by the Taliban in 1996 leading to the establishment of its Islamic emirate; and the success in 2006 of Hamas in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. The Hamas win was not recognised, nor was the national unity government formed. Instead, a siege was imposed on Gaza to suffocate the movement.

Perhaps one of the most influential experiences has been that of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, which won the elections in 2002. It has been a source of inspiration for many Islamic movements. Although the AKP does not describe itself as Islamic, its 10 years of political experience have led to a model that many Islamists regard as successful. The model has three important characteristics: a general Islamic frame of reference; a multi-party democracy; and significant economic growth.

These varied political experiences have had a profound impact on political Islam’s flexibility and capacity for political action, and on its philosophy, too.

However, political Islam has also faced enormous pressures from dictatorial Arab regimes, pressures that became more intense after 9/11. Islamic institutions were suppressed. Islamic activists were imprisoned, tortured and killed. Such experiences gave rise to a profound bitterness. Given the history, it is only natural that we should hear overzealous slogans or intolerant threats from some activists. Some of those now at the forefront of election campaigns were only recently released from prison. It would not be fair to expect them to use the voice of professional diplomats.

Despite this, the Islamic political discourse has generally been balanced. The Tunisian Islamic movement has set a good example. Although Ennahda suffered under Ben Ali’s regime, its leaders developed a tolerant discourse and managed to open up to moderate secular and leftist political groups. The movement’s leaders have reassured Tunisian citizens that it will not interfere in their personal lives and that it will respect their right to choose. The movement also presented a progressive model of women’s participation, with 42 female Ennahda members in the constitutional assembly.

The Islamic movement’s approach to the west has also been balanced, despite the fact that western countries supported despotic Arab regimes. Islamists know the importance of international communication in an economically and politically interconnected world.

Now there is a unique opportunity for the west: to demonstrate that it will no longer support despotic regimes by supporting instead the democratic process in the Arab world, by refusing to intervene in favour of one party against another and by accepting the results of the democratic process, even when it is not the result they would have chosen. Democracy is the only option for bringing stability, security and tolerance to the region, and it is the dearest thing to the hearts of Arabs, who will not forgive any attempts to derail it.

The region has suffered a lot as a result of attempts to exclude Islamists and deny them a role in the public sphere. Undoubtedly, Islamists’ participation in governance will give rise to a number of challenges, both within the Islamic ranks and with regard to relations with other local and international forces. Islamists should be careful not to fall into the trap of feeling overconfident: they must accommodate other trends, even if it means making painful concessions. Our societies need political consensus, and the participation of all political groups, regardless of their electoral weight. It is this interplay between Islamists and others that will both guarantee the maturation of the Arab democratic transition and lead to an Arab political consensus and stability that has been missing for decades.

Viva la Tunisia


Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab spring, and it seems its fervor hasn’t diminished one bit.

Sara Besbes, Tunis and Africa’s fencing champion, Tuesday refused to play against an Israeli player during the 2011 World Fencing Championship in Catania, southern Italy, according to Panorama.It website.

It said Besbes, who comes from a family of great fame in fencing, reached the final round where she had to play against an Israeli player. However, she stood still on the platform, pointing her sword toward the ground and refusing to move as a sign she was boycotting the Israeli athlete but without officially announcing it to avoid punitive measures by the judges.

Robert Fisk on Tunisia


The end of the age of dictators in the Arab world? Certainly they are shaking in their boots across the Middle East, the well-heeled sheiks and emirs, and the kings, including one very old one in Saudi Arabia and a young one in Jordan, and presidents – another very old one in Egypt and a young one in Syria – because Tunisia wasn’t meant to happen. Food price riots in Algeria, too, and demonstrations against price increases in Amman. Not to mention scores more dead in Tunisia, whose own despot sought refuge in Riyadh – exactly the same city to which a man called Idi Amin once fled.

If it can happen in the holiday destination Tunisia, it can happen anywhere, can’t it? It was feted by the West for its “stability” when Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was in charge. The French and the Germans and the Brits, dare we mention this, always praised the dictator for being a “friend” of civilised Europe, keeping a firm hand on all those Islamists.

Tunisians won’t forget this little history, even if we would like them to. The Arabs used to say that two-thirds of the entire Tunisian population – seven million out of 10 million, virtually the whole adult population – worked in one way or another for Mr Ben Ali’s secret police. They must have been on the streets too, then, protesting at the man we loved until last week. But don’t get too excited. Yes, Tunisian youths have used the internet to rally each other – in Algeria, too – and the demographic explosion of youth (born in the Eighties and Nineties with no jobs to go to after university) is on the streets. But the “unity” government is to be formed by Mohamed Ghannouchi, a satrap of Mr Ben Ali’s for almost 20 years, a safe pair of hands who will have our interests – rather than his people’s interests – at heart.

For I fear this is going to be the same old story. Yes, we would like a democracy in Tunisia – but not too much democracy. Remember how we wanted Algeria to have a democracy back in the early Nineties?

Then when it looked like the Islamists might win the second round of voting, we supported its military-backed government in suspending elections and crushing the Islamists and initiating a civil war in which 150,000 died.

No, in the Arab world, we want law and order and stability. Even in Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt and corrupted Egypt, that’s what we want. And we will get it.

The truth, of course, is that the Arab world is so dysfunctional, sclerotic, corrupt, humiliated and ruthless – and remember that Mr Ben Ali was calling Tunisian protesters “terrorists” only last week – and so totally incapable of any social or political progress, that the chances of a series of working democracies emerging from the chaos of the Middle East stand at around zero per cent.

The job of the Arab potentates will be what it has always been – to “manage” their people, to control them, to keep the lid on, to love the West and to hate Iran.

Indeed, what was Hillary Clinton doing last week as Tunisia burned? She was telling the corrupted princes of the Gulf that their job was to support sanctions against Iran, to confront the Islamic republic, to prepare for another strike against a Muslim state after the two catastrophes the United States and the UK have already inflicted in the region.

The Muslim world – at least, that bit of it between India and the Mediterranean – is a more than sorry mess. Iraq has a sort-of-government that is now a satrap of Iran, Hamid Karzai is no more than the mayor of Kabul, Pakistan stands on the edge of endless disaster, Egypt has just emerged from another fake election.

And Lebanon… Well, poor old Lebanon hasn’t even got a government. Southern Sudan – if the elections are fair – might be a tiny candle, but don’t bet on it.

It’s the same old problem for us in the West. We mouth the word “democracy” and we are all for fair elections – providing the Arabs vote for whom we want them to vote for.

In Algeria 20 years ago, they didn’t. In “Palestine” they didn’t. And in Lebanon, because of the so-called Doha accord, they didn’t. So we sanction them, threaten them and warn them about Iran and expect them to keep their mouths shut when Israel steals more Palestinian land for its colonies on the West Bank.

There was a fearful irony that the police theft of an ex-student’s fruit produce – and his suicide in Tunis – should have started all this off, not least because Mr Ben Ali made a failed attempt to gather public support by visiting the dying youth in hospital.

For years, this wretched man had been talking about a “slow liberalising” of his country. But all dictators know they are in greatest danger when they start freeing their entrapped countrymen from their chains.

And the Arabs behaved accordingly. No sooner had Ben Ali flown off into exile than Arab newspapers which have been stroking his fur and polishing his shoes and receiving his money for so many years were vilifying the man. “Misrule”, “corruption”, “authoritarian reign”, “a total lack of human rights”, their journalists are saying now. Rarely have the words of the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran sounded so painfully accurate: “Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings, and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings again.” Mohamed Ghannouchi, perhaps?

Of course, everyone is lowering their prices now – or promising to. Cooking oil and bread are the staple of the masses. So prices will come down in Tunisia and Algeria and Egypt. But why should they be so high in the first place?

Algeria should be as rich as Saudi Arabia – it has the oil and gas – but it has one of the worst unemployment rates in the Middle East, no social security, no pensions, nothing for its people because its generals have salted their country’s wealth away in Switzerland.

And police brutality. The torture chambers will keep going. We will maintain our good relations with the dictators. We will continue to arm their armies and tell them to seek peace with Israel.

And they will do what we want. Ben Ali has fled. The search is now on for a more pliable dictator in Tunisia – a “benevolent strongman” as the news agencies like to call these ghastly men.

And the shooting will go on – as it did yesterday in Tunisia – until “stability” has been restored.

No, on balance, I don’t think the age of the Arab dictators is over. We will see to that.

 

Robert Fisk

The Independent

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