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Can the Islamist movements deliver?   

Arab News - 28 March, 2012
Author: Osama Al Sharif

Arab Islamist movements have never been so close to grabbing power through open and democratic elections as they are today.

They have already succeeded in Tunisia and Egypt. They are expected to do well in Algeria’s upcoming polls. And if elections are held in Jordan this year, under a favorable voting law, they are expected to reap between 25 to 35 percent of the contested parliamentary seats.

Islamist parties are gaining ground in Kuwait and Bahrain. They make up the biggest opposition in Sudan. And in post-Qaddafi’s Libya newly formed Islamist parties will play a major role in the political future of the country.

In Syria, the banned Muslim Brotherhood party has a commanding position in the Syrian National Council, which represents most opponents of the regime of Bashar Assad. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas, a group with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt, has been in control since 2007.

In Yemen the Islamists are reasserting their presence, and historically the Muslim Brotherhood was considered as the largest opposition group to the rule of ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

In almost every Arab country today political Islam is thriving, but it is not of one color. The Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and most popular political movement on the scene, is regarded as moderate compared to radical and fundamentalist parties and groups such as Al Tahrir Party. In Iraq Shiite Islamist parties, some of which have strong ties with Iran, have jockeyed for power and became major political players. Most Sunni parties have allied themselves with a secular coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki has been accused of stirring anti-Sunni sentiments in an attempt to monopolize government.

It is now clear that the biggest winners from the Arab Spring, the popular wave of non-ideological anti-regime uprisings that have been sweeping the region for more than a year, are the Islamists. They have already won a majority in Tunisian, Egyptian and Moroccan parliamentary elections.

But can they be trusted to deliver and maintain a civil state which enshrines democracy and pluralism? Furthermore, can they confront the complicated social, economic and political challenges which previous governments have failed to meet?

In Egypt there are worrying signs that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are running away with the political process. Together they control Egypt’s two-chamber Parliament. Earlier in the week the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and Al Nour Party dominated the 100-member body chosen by Parliament to write a new constitution. While there was nothing illegal in the way the Islamists took over the panel, they were immediately attacked for excluding liberal, nationalist, secular and independent figures. Critics of the move say Islamist domination of the constitutional body will produce an Islamic constitution, or one that reflects the ideological beliefs of the Islamists, while ignoring Egypt’s diverse cultural and religious realities.

Earlier the Muslim Brotherhood said it will not present its own nominee to the presidential elections to be held in May, but recent signals indicate that the movement is having second thoughts. It is clear that Egypt’s Islamists have abandoned earlier promises not to usurp the political process and to work with other parties and political streams in a fragile transitional phase. Such contradictions have inflamed an already tense atmosphere. The ruling military council has launched an unprecedented attack on the Muslim Brotherhood calling on it “to be aware of history’s lessons, to avoid past mistakes ...and to look to the future with the spirit of cooperation.”

In contrast, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood has unveiled a “national covenant with the Syrian people” from its exile in Turkey. On Sunday the movement pledged to respect democracy and share power in a civil state once Assad’s regime is toppled. “We want a democratic Syria and we do not want to control the country alone,” it said in a statement. It added that the group was committed to “a civil and democratic republican state with a parliamentary system, in which all the people are treated equal regardless of faith or ethnicity.”

But the Muslim Brotherhood is not alone in the political arena. The recent rise of the Salafis, whose ideological and political agendas differ markedly from those of the Muslim Brotherhood, is a cause for concern. In Egypt and Tunisia the Salafis have made it clear that their aim is to establish a Sharia governed Islamic state.

The truth of the matter is that the Islamists have not been tested before. And in spite of repeated assurances, there are no guarantees that once in government they will not try to impose their own views and beliefs or interrupt the democratic transfer of power.

For the time being popular sentiments favor the Islamists after decades of persecution by authoritarian governments. The Islamists are already in control in Tunisia and Egypt and other countries will soon follow. It is the biggest test yet for political Islam and the future of a region that is still grappling with the issues of democracy, human rights, pluralism, secularism and civil state.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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