A New Dawn for Political Islam?

Egypt Muslim_Brotherhood
By Andrea Dessi

The political landscape of the Arab world has been fundamentally transformed by the events of 2011. After decades of sterile politics and engrained authoritarianism Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria have embarked on a courageous journey aimed at fostering inclusive societies based on the rule of law and accountable governance. While we are only at the beginnings of what will be a long and arduous process, it is hard to believe that things will ever go back to the way they were. To imagine a return to the political apathy that characterised  many countries in the region before December 2010 would be to ignore the groundbreaking social implications of the "Arab Spring" and the spectacular return of people power to the region. 

From Morocco to Bahrain the Arab public is on the march, and representation through elections is what they demand.

On the  23 January, Egypt’s first democratically elected parliament in six decades held its opening session. As crowds gathered outside to demand an immediate transfer of power from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the 508 delegates in Egypt’s People’s Assembly (lower house of parliament) gathered in a minute of silence to commemorate the martyrs of the revolution. Following two months of electoral infighting Islamist parties have emerged as the decisive winners in post-Mubarak Egypt, securing 71 per cent of the vote (369 seats). By comparison, liberal and leftist parties won only 15 per cent (87 seats), while candidates listed as independents gained 26 seats or 5 per cent (10 seats, 1 per cent, were reserved for SCAF appointees). It is important to note that the real losers of the election were the so-called felool parties composed of remnants from Mubarak’s now outlawed National Democratic Party (NDP) which only gained 16 seats (3 per cent).

Many had predicted the new parliament to be divided between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and ex-Mubarak loyalists but this scenario has not materialised  and the biggest surprise of the elections has been the impressive showing of the ultra- conservative Salafi Al-Nour party. Part of the Islamist Alliance, Al-Nour has emerged as Egypt’s second largest party in parliament with 124 seats (24.3 per cent), placing it squarely behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP which ran as part of the Democratic Alliance and gained 235 seats (47.2 per cent). A smaller moderate Islamist party, the Wasat, gained 10 seats or 2 per cent of the vote. Egypt’s oldest liberal party, the Wafd, which had originally united with the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Democratic Alliance but eventually decided to compete independently, came in a distant third, securing 38 seats in parliament (7.6 per cent). Other liberal coalitions included the Egyptian Bloc (34 seats, 6.8 per cent), Reform and Development (9 seats, 1.8 per cent) and the Revolution Continues, which gained a mere 7 seats or 1.4 per cent of the vote.            

The impressive electoral results  of Islamist parties in Egypt’s parliamentary elections has been matched by similar victories in other countries in the region. In Tunisia, the moderate Islamist Ennahda party won more than 37 per cent of votes cast during the country’s first free elections, while in November 2011 the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) won a majority of seats in Morocco’s newly elected parliament. In Libya, where tensions and political violence have recently increased, no precise date has been set for the country’s first post-Gaddafi elections but free voting will presumably herald a victory for Libya’s various Islamist parties. In Algeria, a country which has had a long and difficult history with political Islam, several Islamist parties have been reported to be in negotiations for the creation of a united front to compete in the country’s next parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2012. Turning to Syria and Yemen, two countries with yet unclear futures, various strands of political Islam will again emerge as the primary political current if and when free elections are called.

While these results could be interpreted as a vindication of the warnings issued from various quarters that the "Arab Spring" would soon turn into an “Islamist winter”, recent reactions from the US and certain European capitals seem to indicate an acceptance of the need to work with Islamist parties and recognise  their genuine political victories in the polls. America’s Ambassador to Egypt, Anne W. Patterson, has personally met with the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, the leaders of the FJP and has announced plans for  dialogue with the Salafi Al-Nour party as well as with all other political forces in Egypt. In a recent New York Times op-ed,  Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, commenting  on the the electoral victories  of Islamist parties across the region, wrote; “Each political party and movement has to be understood and appreciated according to its own merits, just as they need to be judged by their concrete actions and deeds. These are political movements that are learning and changing before our eyes and we have taken note.”

This willingness to engage with new Islamist parties is a welcome  development and represents a step in the right direction.

The reasons for this apparent policy shift are to be found in a combination of realpolitik  – mainly that western powers cannot be seen to be  abandoning democratic principles after Islamist victories given their firm support for elections in the first place – and a realisation  that the Islamism exposed by such parties as the FJP in Egypt or Ennahda in Tunisia is a far cry from the more uncompromising, violent and deeply anti-western Islamist currents present in the Arab world during the early 90s.  Both Ennahda and the FJP have spoken favourably of the merits of a democratic constitution, social justice, and free market economics, have voiced their commitment to the protection of personal freedoms, popular sovereignty and the rule of law and have also issued assurances to uphold previous international agreements (including, in the Egyptian case, the peace treaty with Israel).

It is still too early to tell whether the victory of Islamist parties in many Arab countries will lead to more closed and conservative societies, but it is no exaggeration to say that the upcoming years will witness an increasingly visible marriage between Islam and politics. In this respect, the process of drafting new constitutions in each of these countries will be an important indicator for things to come. For decades, various currents of political Islam had been harshly repressed by Arab dictatorships and at best relegated to the position of semi-authorised  opposition parties. While the most conservative strands of Islamism, including the Salafi and Wahabbi currents, tended to refute politics and democracy as un-Islamic norms and thus largely avoided the watchful eye of the various Arab security services, other more moderate movements, including many of the various Muslim Brotherhood offshoots, have slowly grown to embrace democratic norms as the best means of attaining power in their societies. The famous slogan “Islam is the solution”, perhaps the most well-known Muslim Brotherhood motto, might have worked when these movements were in the opposition but now that Brotherhood parties have become the leading political force in many Arab countries their electorate will judge them on more tangible policies such as the economy and the pace of socio-political reforms. The primary challenge facing these Islamist parties will in fact be that of adapting their classical Islamic principles to the pressing necessities of the modern world - first and foremost of which will be economic growth and job creation.

This was the message sent out by various Arab speakers at this year’s World Financial Forum in Davos. Addressing the conference, Moez Masoud, an Egyptian Islamic scholar and preacher, explained why so many people had voted for Islamist parties in Egypt’s first free elections;  “It was not about bikinis or no bikinis, or whether to implement Sharia law. It got down to jobs, money and security, and the people wanted the best-organised  groups” to lead the transition as an insurance policy against a possible return of the old elites.  


An extended version of this article first appeared on Reset - Dialogues on Civilizations, an Italian non-profit Association which promotes dialogue and intercultural understanding through public meetings, publications and press work. 


20 February 2012