How the Islamists took power

The Majalla - 29 February 2012

Why did Moroccans, Tunisians, and Egyptians cast their hard-won vote in favor of religious parties?

The recent success of Islamist parties in North Africa was not in the script for armchair spectators of the Arab Spring. Western observers thought they were witnessing an awakening that would ouster authoritarian regimes, and replace them with Westernized liberal governments. Nabila Ramdani explains that a victory for conservatism is as much a reaction to Western influence as it is an endorsement of political Islam.

“How did that happen?” was the question asked by numerous Western commentators as the results of Tunisia’s first free elections were announced in October last year. To them, there had been a short, hugely dramatic revolution using new media tools and espousing liberal ‘Western’ values, and yet the result was an Islamic parliament. Armchair observers who had viewed the Jasmine Revolution as the ‘democratic’ Arab world fighting back against the dogma and squalor which had produced everything from the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America were particularly alarmed. Surely millions of liberated Tunisians did not want to swap the despotic Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali for the kind of clerical dictatorship which had turned countries like Iran into international pariahs?

The answer, of course, was that Tunisia’s Ennahda Partywhich claimed victory over the secular Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), never had any intention of re-imposing authoritarian rule in the first country to achieve freedom during the Arab Spring. Rather than living up to the extremist stereotypes created by anti-Muslim propagandists, they were moderates committed to a “unity government” reflecting popular opinion. It was to be the same with other Arab countries as, over the next few months, they either shed their dictators or reformed their political systems to stave off rebellion.

Widespread popular support for political Islam actually reflects an abiding frustration with the West’s continual portrayal of Muslims as violent extremists.More than 70 percent of votes in Egypt’s new parliament went to parties with Islamic links, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. In Morocco, the moderate Islamic Party of Justice and Development (PJD) now controls the new coalition government for the first time in the country’s history. It won the largest number of seats for any single party (107 out of 395) in last November’s parliamentary elections.

Rather than the enemies of feminists, Christians, secularists, and a host of other minority groups who want a say in the running of their new regimes, the moderate Islamists in countries like Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia have set about ending corruption, promoting social justice, and making their countries economically viable. In Syria and Libya—the countries that have experienced by far the bloodiest revolutions—it is heavily armed Islamic movements which have been at the forefront of protests. Extremist religious groups also routinely threaten established leaders in countries like Algeria.

To understand why, we only have to look at the recent history of Islamic parties in Arab countries. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood has been banned for almost 50 years, and many of those supporting Bashar Al-Assad’s regime do so because they fear a resurgence of Islamic extremism. Assad has, in turn, persecuted the Brotherhood relentlessly. Joining the Brotherhood has been a capital offence in Syria since the early 1980s, and Assad has rigorously enforced the death sentence. Such repression has been replicated in other countries including Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.  In all of these countries, most Islamists have been given martyr status because of the repression they suffered at the hand of Western-backed autocrats—a fact which has been an obvious boost to their political ambitions.

Widespread popular support for political Islam actually reflects an abiding frustration with the West’s continual portrayal of Muslims as violent extremists. The War on Terror which President George W. Bush began in 2001 directly led to a crackdown on Muslims in their own countries. Accordingly, dictators had an easy excuse to pour millions into state security. The collaboration between the US and its allies meant that ‘terrorists’ were arrested after Friday prayers, tortured, or even killed, while others were forced abroad. For example the Secretary General of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, Hamadi Jebali,  spent 16 years in prison, while the President of the party, Rachid Ghannouchi, spent a total of 22 years in exile. As far as future elections were concerned, this could only have one result: the support of Islamic parties by indigenous Muslim populations.

There is no escaping the fact that Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Colonel Qadhafi in Libya all regularly bought their weapons, including crowd control and espionage technology, from Western companies, as they kept their own people in line. Meanwhile, these same populations often lived in squalid conditions, sharing none of the revenue acquired from western oil and energy speculators, or from tourism chiefs who offered beaches and other attractions to rich foreign visitors.

Hotels and restaurants came to symbolize all that was anathema to the oppressed. Instead their day-to-day lives were characterized by unemployment, poor medical care, sub-standard education, and in many cases, no basic supplies like running water or electricity. As the dictators concentrated on their super-rich elites, Islamic parties alleviated the condition of the poor and the ill, and the oppressed. Movements like the Muslim Brotherhood invested huge amounts of time, effort and limited funds in providing accommodation, medical assistance and food for all kinds of disadvantaged groups, including rural students who had made their way to big cities. They also invested in women’s groups, and provided mass marriage ceremonies for those who would have otherwise found it too expensive to wed. Such philanthropic and charity work was not forgotten by the electorate once despotic governments were finally overthrown.

Another reason for the rise of political Islam has been a reaction to the greed, violence and conformity many young Arabs associate with the West. Given a choice between military bases and fast food chains, many revert to a conservative preference for traditional Islamic values. In the words of Salah Ibrahim, a 23-year-old IT student from Cairo: “There are very few young Arabs who want to turn into regular Westerners. Despite understanding that we need to use the tools of the modern world like the internet, Arabs are essentially a conservative, religious people. This has always been the case, and modern politicians who overlook this will have no chance of winning elections.” In short, Islamic parties enable them to affirm their identities. The westernized Arabs who drive everywhere in imported Mercedes limousines and who send their sons and daughters to universities in London and Paris have always been a tiny minority.

Just look at the condescending, dismissive manner in which many in the West greeted the early success of the Arab Spring. At the time the French Foreign Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie (who had been hosted by the Ben Ali family on her vacation), suggested sending extra tear gas and police advisors to Tunis. The US wanted to supply more rubber bullets to Mubarak in Egypt. Just four years before the start of the Libyan rebellion, President Nicolas Sarkozy invited Colonel Qadhafi for a state visit to Paris, where he was treated as a true “Brother Leader” as Sarkozy tried to sell him millions of euros worth of fighter jets. Around the same time, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was still “opening up” Libya to energy companies from the UK and the US, having also embraced Qadhafi as a “friend.” It was only when the diplomatic tide changed (which in Sarkozy’s case meant Qadhafi deciding to buy Russian planes instead of French ones) that France and the UK withdrew their support, effectively signing Qadhafi’s death warrant.

More starkly, young Arabs still resent what the West is perceived as doing to fellow Muslims. The daily bombing of Afghanistan by a high-tech military is just part of an onslaught which regularly sees ordinary people becoming ‘collateral damage.’ Even those without televisions would have been aware of the nightly attacks on Libyan cities by cruise missiles, and Royal Air Force and French jets, as Qadhafi’s forces were obliterated into submission alongside anybody else who got in the way. In June 2011, for example, 15 civilians including three children were killed in a Nato attack on buildings just to the west of Tripoli. Nato later admitted to a so-called weapons failure, saying the intended target had been a “key Qadhafi regime command and control centre.”

Foreign intervention, and particularly the kind of destructive horror which has blighted Iraq, has played a huge part in helping to forge Arab consciousness over the past few decades. Faced with the perceived ‘Western values’ of easy killing and the destruction of property, conservative Arabs would much rather opt for the safe, trusted option of local religious parties.

Another crucial point about the new Islamic parties is that the successful ones are always likely to be democratic ones. Both the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia have made it clear that technocratic brilliance is needed to solve the endemic economic and social problems of the Arab world. Creating jobs, modern housing, education and health systems, and efficient public services for all will require the kind of joint effort encapsulated by the term “unity government.” Rachid Ghannouchi, has pledged to create up to 600,000 new jobs in Tunisia, so cutting the unemployment rate from at least 19 percent to just over eight percent. Referring to a female graduate jobless rate spiraling above 35 percent, Ghannouchi said: “We want an economic model like Sweden’s … we want to strengthen women’s rights, on workplace harassment, domestic violence, and better childcare so women can continue their careers.”

Through taking on secular parties as allies, parties like Ennahda will be confident of their ability to build their country’s infrastructure, encourage business, and control Tunisia’s previously corrupt, brutal security services. Tunisian Islamists certainly realize that the secular parties could act as a brake on the kind of extremism which saw Sharia law enshrined in the new Libyan constitution following the fall of Qadhafi.

Yes, Islam can be extreme, but no less so than any other form of political expression. To argue otherwise is like saying that conservative values only encompass racism, rather than a patriotic desire for stability, peace and prosperity. Islamic parties will be first and foremost judged on their ability to bring back dignity into the lives of ordinary Arabs. If they succeed they will be re-elected, if they fail they will be rejected. The laws of democratic politics apply to Islamic parties as much as anybody else, and that is why both the Arab World and the West have every reason to embrace them.

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