The Islamist surge

Published : Feb 24, 2006 00:00 IST

A Hezbollah rally in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. - HUSSEIN MALLA/AP

A Hezbollah rally in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. - HUSSEIN MALLA/AP

The success of Islamist parties in the region can be traced to their consistent stance on emotive issues such as Palestine and Iraq.

IN his annual State of the Union address on February 1, United States President George W. Bush once again extolled the virtues of democracy. However, in the same speech he warned against the dangers that "radical Islam" posed to the West. The Bush administration is still formally wedded to its goal of "spreading democracy" in West Asia, but its knee-jerk reaction to the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections highlights its growing wariness on the question of genuine democratisation. U.S. commentators have been pointing out that if democracy sweeps the region, the first governments to fall will be the close allies of Washington.

The West is aware that Islamist parties now have strong moorings in West Asia and North Africa. The West's double standards on the subject came to the fore after the first free and fair elections were held in Algeria in the early 1990s. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) swept the first round of elections and was on the verge of forming the government when the Algerian Army intervened and set aside the people's verdict. Civil war followed, and more than 100,000 Algerians lost their lives. The Islamic insurgency still continues, albeit on a vastly reduced scale. There was no great international outcry when the Algerian election results were annulled by the military.

In Turkey, the Army, which considers itself the inheritor of the late Kemal Ataturk's secular mantle, did not allow the Islamists to stay long in office after they won elections in the early 1990s. The main Islamist party had to make a lot of compromises to gain power after winning the last elections. Once ensconced in office, the Islamists have considerably moderated their views and have gone out of their way to accommodate the interests of the military. Turkey, even under an Islamist government, continues to have excellent political and military relations with Israel.

The Bush administration's scheme to implement democracy in West Asia started with the elections in Iraq. In the December elections, it was the Shia- dominated Islamist parties which got the bulk of the seats. Iranian officials and commentators have said that Iraq is, in fact, the first Arab state to elect democratically an Islamist government. Under pressure from the U.S. administration, other Arab states have also been tinkering with democratic reforms. Unsurprisingly, wherever Islamist parties have been allowed to compete, they have done well.

The elections to the Egyptian Parliament in late 2005 are an illustration. Candidates owing allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 of the 444 seats. This was despite the fact that its candidates were prevented from contesting under the banner of their party and were allowed to contest in only one-third of the total number of seats. Reports in the Arab media said that the Muslim Brotherhood would have won more seats if the government had not cracked the whip after the first round of voting. The government, evidently, underestimated the support for the party. The Muslim Brotherhood is one of the oldest Islamist parties in the world. It was officially banned in Egypt in the early 1950s. It has spawned several organisations with almost the same worldview, including Hamas, the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Islah in Yemen.

After the elections, the U.S. State Department said that the way in which they were conducted raised "serious concerns about the path of political reform in Egypt". Ironically, it was the first comparatively "fair and free elections" held in Egypt in the past 50 years after President Hosni Mubarak came under tremendous pressure from the Bush administration to institute "democratic reforms".

Despite their good showing in the elections, Egypt's Islamists seem keen to avoid a confrontation with the government. They have refrained from demanding a slice of power and their main aim seems to be to wrest more liberties from the government. At the same time, they are also trying to neutralise the attempts to demonise them in the international arena. The Islamists are now preoccupied with presenting themselves as a moderate alternative to the government.

The Muslim Brotherhood's members in the Egyptian Parliament are expected to focus on bringing in constitutional amendments aimed at reducing the draconian powers accorded to the President's office. According to its spokesman, the new Parliament will probably propose a new constitutional amendment that would "restrict the limitless powers granted to the President" and restrict his tenure to two terms. Mubarak won his fifth six-year term in the elections held last year, winning 88 per cent of the votes polled. The Muslim Brotherhood, because of its illegal status, could not put up a candidate.

Elsewhere, the results of the Lebanese elections made the U.S. happy. Although the Hezbollah is part of the ruling coalition in Beirut, the major players are all either pro-U.S. or pro-French. Secular and nationalist parties that made the mistake of standing by Syria were trounced. The fear in several Arab capitals is that the West would use the election results in Lebanon to destabilise the Ba'ath Party's regime in Syria.

According to several Arab scholars and commentators, but for the repressive systems and skewed electoral laws, Islamists would sweep elections all over the Arab world in today's conditions. They believe that Islamists are doing well because of their consistent and principled stance on emotive issues such as Palestine and Iraq. The Islamists, through their network of social-service institutions, have managed to build a strong rapport with civil society. The Arab street has also not failed to notice that compared to the ruling elite, the Islamists have taken a strident stand against U.S. hegemony in the region.

Some prominent Western scholars in the early 1990s claimed that political Islam was in its death throes. These scholars tried to portray parties with Islamist tendencies as those espousing fundamentalism and terrorism. Arab scholars argue that Islamism, like socialism, has many hues and variations. It is a diverse movement, which embraces liberal as well as conservative tendencies.

Given the mood on the Arab street, it is not surprising that U.S. officials these days are playing down the supposed efficacy of full-blown democratic reforms in the region. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during her frequent visits to Arab capitals, used to be critical about the state of democracy in the region. After the election results in Egypt and Palestine, her fervour has noticeably declined. Her emphasis is now only on administrative reforms.

Daniel Pipes, a prominent member of Bush's "neo-conservative" cabal who played an important role in pushing the U.S. to war in Iraq, was quoted as saying that his country "must slow down the democratic process - to prevent Islamic governments from gaining power in Arab states". He wanted the U.S. to prepare a "comfortable time-table" for the introduction of democracy. "I personally prefer the dictators of today to the Islamist dictators in the future," said Pipes.

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