- - Saturday, December 10, 2011

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,” said Fawaz 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.

“They have a good reach into more rural areas and have natural community outreach through mosques. The Muslim Brotherhood has been pragmatic, and I think their policies will focus on economics and social welfare.”

Ali El Ghol, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter from the Cairo neighborhood of Zaytun, said the group is in touch with ordinary people and understands their needs.

“The Brotherhood has a role in every social activity and is interacting with everyone, because they are from the people,” Mr. El Ghol said. “They are not different people or a different country.

“They include everyone, from very simple men who are craftsmen to well-educated lawyers and doctors.”

Still, some observers were surprised by the number of votes cast in Egypt for the fundamentalist Al-Nour Party. It is made up of Salafists, whose hard-line Islamist group wants to enshrine Shariah law in the constitution.

“I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood is keen to have a coalition with the Salafists,” said Ms. Nevens. “They wouldn’t want to be part of more extreme politics.

“People are surprised by the emergence of the Salafist group,” she said. “Under [President Hosni] Mubarak, they were entirely oppressed, but now they have more space to organize themselves.”

On Thursday, the Muslim Brotherhood accused Egypt’s military rulers of trying to undercut the authority of elected lawmakers even before the parliament is seated, the Associated Press reported.

The Brotherhood said it is boycotting a council appointed by the ruling generals to oversee the creation of the new constitution, the AP reported.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has indicated that it will seek to emulate the governance of Turkey, which is administered by the moderate Justice and Development Party, rather than the theocracy of Iran.

The Brotherhood also has said it will work to establish a coalition among Egypt’s political entities.

“We are committed to the democratic alliance,” said Essam El Erian, vice president of Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party. “We have no other links with any other party as of now.

“Shariah principles are in the constitution, and they are approved and accepted by all. Legalization according to Shariah law must be done by the parliament, not by any party alone,” he said.

Although Iran ushered in a theocracy after its revolution, the risk of a similar occurrence in the Arab Spring should not be overstated, analysts say.

“It is a legitimate fear based on what happened in Iran, which was transformed into a theocracy,” said Sara Silvestri, professor of international politics at City University London. “It is possible there is some risk, but it is as possible of Nazism in Europe with a prime minister coming along and becoming like Hitler.

“There are exceptions that we have to take into account, but it doesn’t mean that every electoral process will lead to a Hitler and likewise in the Middle East.”

Ms. Silvestri advocates a cautious approach by Western governments, allowing time for Islamist parties to develop.

“Western governments are right to be fearful because of lessons they have learned from the past when attempts to engage with Islamist politics have created violence and defiance,” she said. “[But] there will be more to lose by condemning or ostracizing Islamic voices. It could cause resentment and grievances among the Muslim audience.”

Mr. Gerges said the political parties rising in the wake of the Arab Spring appear more democratic than the Islamist movement that emerged after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

“What happened [in Iran] was a revolutionary rupture of the whole system; [the Arab Spring] is a revolutionary transition,” he said. “It is an unfolding political struggle. [Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood] have denounced violence and have been laboring hard to get legal legitimacy.”

In the meantime, Egyptians are preparing to vote this month and next in the second and third stages of parliamentary elections. A final result is expected before February.

“The West always thinks of radical Islamists, and the Western imagination is dominated by image of groups such as al Qaeda that don’t really apply,” said Mr. Gerges. “I don’t think people should worry that the Islamists will hijack the awakenings. They have been obsessed with issues of morality, alcohol, [the way people dress]. I think we are going to see a lot of debate.”

Louise Osborne reported from Berlin.

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