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Islamists sweep into power.

Arab leaders who were swept away last year by the so-called Arab Spring wave may have done many wrongs but they were in agreement on one true thing: the warning that if they were replaced, their successors would be the Islamists. This has been proved by the election results in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and is likely to be confirmed in other Arab countries.

Most of the big powers were not surprised by those results. Foreign government officials openly said they had no objections in dealing with Islamists if they were elected democratically, chose dialogue as a way to settle disputes and adopted the principle of office rotation' according to Bassem al-Jisr, columnist in the pan-Arab ASHARQ AL AWSAT (14 Dec. 2011). Jisr said some Islamist leaders went farther to shun fanatic Islamist ideologies like the Taliban and the Ayatollah of Iran or even impose Islamic ideology on others.

But the question Jisr asked in his article was: "Is it enough to promise all that to transform Arab regimes to liberal democracies open to the rest of the world and respectful of freedom and human rights?

In Egypt, where elections have been held for the first national parliament after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood said they had won and were looking forward to control the government. Banned under deposed Mubarak, the Brotherhood has emerged as a major winner from the uprising that toppled him, exploiting a well-organized support base in the first free legislative vote in decades.

It may be some weeks before the exact shape of the lower house is known because of various runoff votes. However, it is unlikely that their outcome will alter the dominance of the Islamists who now look set to wield major influence over the shape of a new constitution to be drafted by a 100-strong body that the new assembly will pick.

The Brotherhood has promised that Egyptians of all persuasions will have their say and, while the strong Islamist performance has alarmed some Egyptians and Western governments that backed Mubarak, it is far from clear whether rival Islamists will cooperate in the new legislature. The Brotherhood's Democratic Alliance list has won over 41 percent of the seats so far, while another list led by the hardline Islamist Nour Party came second with at least 20 percent of the seats.

The Nour Party seeks strict application of Islamic law and the more moderate Brotherhood may seek an alliance with liberal groups to allay concerns about the prospect of an Islamist-led Egypt. Sixty-two percent of potential voters cast their ballots in the third round of the election, which took place last week, Egypt's election commission said.


With the elections for the lower house drawing to a close, the debate is now likely to shift to the new constitution that will replace the Mubarak-era document. One main area of discussion will be whether there should be a dilution of presidential powers which underpinned his rule. Those powers are now exercised by the ruling Higher Military Council, which has faced mounting criticism from activists who accuse it of seeking to hold on to power and privilege. The military is set to rule until the end of June, by which time they say Egyptians will have elected a president to whom they will hand over power.

For the United States and its Middle Eastern ally Israel the most important commitment an Islamist government in Egypt could make is to preserve, protect and defend the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Under that treaty Egypt gets annual U.S. aid totaling some three billion dollars. Successive U.S. administrations have always avoided dealing with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. But after the latest election rounds, "there has been a dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward the organization," according to an article in Beirut's influential daily AN NAHAR (5 Jan. 2012).

Quoting a U.S. administration official in the New York Times last week, AN NAHAR said "he (the official) believes there is no other way but to deal directly with the party that has won the election ... It has sent clear messages regarding domestic and regional security." The unnamed official referred to several promises the U.S. had secured from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood before starting the negotiations (See MER, Dec. 17, 2011).

Other Muslim Players

The Muslim Brotherhood may be in the lead in the current election process but trailing right behind it are the radical Dalafis. While the Brotherhood has long been Egypt's best organized opposition movement, the Salafis are a new player in politics. Salafis are ultraconservatives, close to Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and more radical than the Brotherhood. They seek to emulate the austerity of Islam's early days and oppose a wide range of practices they view as "un-Islamic"--rejecting the treatment of non-Muslims as citizens with equal rights as well as all forms of Western cultural influence.

Salafis traditionally stayed out of politics, rejecting democracy because it replaces rule by God's law with the law of man. The movement grew in recent years because it was tolerated and even encouraged by the Mubarak regime to counter the Muslim Brotherhood. With Mubarak gone, the Salafis have abandoned their disdain for politics.

Yasser Moutwaly, a Salafi leader in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, told The Associated Press that the movement planned to set up its own party, though he insisted that entering politics would not mean abandoning its principles. He said the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood were engaged in preliminary contacts over the possibility of "coordination" in the parliamentary elections.

Another contender is the Gamaa Islamiya, or the "Islamic Group," a militant organization that fought the Mubarak regime in a bloody insurgency in the 1990s, seeking to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. It has a base of support in southern Egypt, particularly in the city of Assiut, and is conducting internal elections to create provincial and consultative councils nationwide.

Liberals and leftists, including the youth activists who led the protest uprising against Mubarak, are caught between their stance that all sides must be allowed to enter the political game if Egypt is to be a real democracy and worries whether Islamists will play by the rules. "I think there is too much Islamophobia," Khaled Abdel-Hameed, one youth leader, said of fears of Islamists hijacking the process. "Everyone is trying to hijack the revolution, including me. If people elect religious groups, I will respect their choice."

Another activist, Mustafa al-Nagar, is more concerned. "I am worried most about the Salafis because they are not accustomed to politics," said al-Nagar, who campaigns for Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate and potential candidate in presidential elections due in November. "Their main concern is to exclude anyone else."]

Election Results

As the People's Assembly elections ended, both Egypt's privately owned AL-SHOROUK and state-run AL-GOMHURRIYA published the compiled results of the three rounds on January 7. Despite slight differences in the two publication's numbers, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) certainly appeared to have collected the majority of seats, with 48 percent. Following it with 25 percent was the Salafi-led Nour Party, with the Wafd Party third with 9 percent, followed by the Egyptian Bloc with 8 percent. The Wasat Party and the Revolution Continues Coalition won the smallest shares with 2 percent and 1.5 percent respectively. AL-GOMHURRIYA reported that only three women and only three Christians, of whom one is an FJP member, made it into parliament.

On the same note, FREEDOM AND JUSTICE published a vision of five possible scenarios for the FJP's parliamentary alliances after the elections. The first one is an alliance between the FJP (207 seats) and other Islamist parties (67 seats) but excluding the Nour Party, resulting in a coalition of total 274 seats. The second scenario is a 313-seat coalition between the FJP and the Nour Party (106 seats), which would make it the biggest coalition in the parliament. The third comprises FJP and the Wafd (45 seats), adding up to 252 seats, which would also be the number of seats if FJP reached an agreement with the Egyptian Bloc, the fourth potential scenario. The fifth scenario would be an alliance between the FJP and the Revolution Continues Coalition along with other small parties and independents, reaching 261 seats.
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Title Annotation:ISLAMISTS
Publication:The Weekly Middle East Reporter (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Jan 13, 2012
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