Islamists gain backers seeking help, not oppression

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CAIRO — Long-oppressed Arabs may be supporting Islamist political parties, but that does not mean the United States needs to fear a new rash of governments imposing strict Islamic law, according to some analysts who reviewed voting patterns after the Arab Spring uprisings.

“What voters are doing is voting for a clean break with the old regimes,” saidFawaz Gerges, director of Middle East studies at the London School of Economics.

“It is local politics at its best. Poor Arabs in the poorest neighborhoods don’t know what Islamists stand for, but are voting for them because they know them.”

Other analysts note that the victorious parties have tended to avoid forming coalitions with Islamic extremists, which led Mr. Gerges to predict that Arab voters will judge the Islamist parties on whether they continue their practice of helping the poor.

“We shouldn’t be surprised by the Islamists’ rise, but I think they will rise and fall on their ability to deliver the goods,” Mr. Gerges said of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other “mainstream Islamists” in Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia.

“This is a return for Islamists making major investments in politics, welfare and society over the last 40 years.”

For Islamists across the Arab world, those investments are paying big dividends:

• In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring protests, the moderate Islamist party Ennahda has risen to power after winning the largest share of votes in recent parliamentary elections.

• In Morocco, King Mohammed VI appointed Abdelilah Benkirane, leader of the Justice and Development Party, as that nation’s first prime minister after enacting reforms that strengthen the office.

• In Egypt, results from the first round of parliamentary elections last month showed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party leading, with 36.6 percent of the vote. The Al-Nour Party, a more fundamentalist Islamist group, was second, with 24.4 percent.

Islamist parties are expected to dominate upcoming elections in Libya and Yemen.

In general, Islamists seek to base their government’s functions on their religion, usually a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam’s tenets and proscriptions. Some Islamists also seek to institute Shariah law over civil law.

Secularists and civil libertarians have expressed concerns about the prospect of Islamist-led governments limiting women’s rights and religious freedoms throughout the Arab world.

Islamist parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have been heavily involved in helping poor communities amid the oppression of the Arab world’s now-ousted, autocratic regimes, analysts said.

“[Muslim Brotherhood members] are the most organized and have been around for a long time,” said Kate Nevens, manager for the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London think tank.

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