The Rise of Islamist Democracy

The West has long played a double game regarding democracy in the Middle East, replacing popular leaders who nationalized oil or caused “trouble” with autocrats – and then condemning Muslims as politically backward. Now that democracy is returning, the West again is uneasy, writes Adil E. Shamoo.

By Adil E. Shamoo

The hysteria in the West about the Arab awakening turning into an Arab Islamist nightmare is reaching full-blown proportions. The United States and Israel, self-appointed referees of democracy in the region despite their long-running support for the Middle East’s most corrupt and authoritarian regimes, are crying foul.

The incitement? A series of victoriesby Islamist parties in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. Yet, given the history of Western support for governments that simultaneously quashed secular opposition movements and persecuted Islamists, the popularity of moderate Islamist parties should come as little surprise — nor should it be cause for concern.

Celebration in Egypt's Tahrir Square after word of Hosni Mubarak's ouster

For over 60 years, the West sold out Arab freedom and democracy for oil and stability. Fearing the growing strength of Arab communist parties in the 1950s, the West assisted in founding and supporting the anti-communist Baathists, who came to power in Iraq and Syria in the 1960s and decimated the communist parties there, along with the rest of their domestic opposition — secular and religious alike.

The secular Baathists, along with other U.S.-backed regimes in the region (especially in Egypt), were not receptive to the growing power of Islamists, often repressing them brutally. Yet while the regimes dismantled secular and left-wing opposition groups — and discredited the secular system itself with their own excesses — the ranks of Islamists managed to grow.

Just as in the United States, where the civil rights movement and various right-wing evangelical causes found sanctuary in houses of worship, Islamists in the Middle East managed to grow their movement in the refuge of the mosque.

Even today, the United States seems more concerned about maintaining Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel — signed by Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian predecessor Anwar Sadat — than with the welfare of Egyptians themselves.

It was not even a year ago that the United States first advocated for a transitional Mubarak-led government in Egypt and, when that became untenable, supported the head of the hated security services, known as “the butcher of Egypt” —  Omar Suleiman — as the transitional leader. Even without Suleiman, Egypt’s rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) more and more resembles a mere “coup d’état light.”

By all appearances, the military is trying to maintain its control by any means necessary as long as it looks democratic. SCAF has used the same tactics as the previous regime — arbitrary arrest, kidnapping, torture and imprisonment — to stay in control. The Egyptian people have other ideas in mind.

Beyond even such political and historical explanations, it should come as little surprise that Islamist slogans find fertile ground in the majority-Muslim Middle East — especially if we look at the United States itself. A cursory review of the GOP presidential candidates’ emphasis on their Christianity shows that religious politics are alive in East and West alike.

Yet U.S. pundits and politicians seem continually baffled about the appeal of Islamist parties in the region. The same pundits, such as the conservative Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, decry the “failure of the Muslim world’s secular movements to provide better forms of politics.”

Sea Change

In the rubble of authoritarian and corrupt secular regimes, democratically elected Islamists, mindful of the necessity of power-sharing and moderation, may be paving the way for the region’s transition to democracy.

In Tunisia, where the Islamist Ennahda party won a plurality of the vote, the Constituent Assembly offered the presidency to Moncef Marzouki of the secular, left-leaning Congress for the Republic Party.

Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, furthermore, has made several conciliatory statements toward other parties and tacked moderate on social issues, mindful that the people of Tunis in particular will not tolerate an oppressive cultural system dictated by the government.

Newly elected Islamists from Morocco’s Justice and Development Party have made similar statements, while Libyan Islamist leaders have emphasized social justice and patriotism above religious issues.

In Egypt’s unusual multi-stage elections, the two large Islamist parties have won a clear majority. In the nine districts polled in the first round, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won nearly 37 percent of the vote, while the Salafist, Saudi-backed Nour Party took nearly 25 percent.

Two rounds of voting remain. But rather than form a coalition with the Salafists, who favor a strict and conservative application of Islam in all aspects of life, the FJP is planning to join more moderate forces in any future government.

The Arab world is seeing a sea change. The Arab people are facing many crucial and important choices that will determine the future the Middle East. New Arab governments will face monumental challenges such as deep poverty, poor industrial infrastructure, broken health systems, and systemic corruption. And if the recent election results are any indication, the Islamists are here to stay.

The sooner the United States realizes this fact, the sooner it can enter into an honest and mutually beneficial dialogue with the region’s new leaders. There is no need for the hysteria and bellicose anti-Islamic rhetoric offered by many of the GOP’s presidential candidates.

Instead, the United States can offer Arabs the educational and technical assistance they hunger for to promote their economic growth. The more America engages Arabs and Muslims abroad — while respecting their dignity and sovereignty — the better it can help them to become part of the world community.

Adil E. Shamoo is a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, where this article first appeared, and the author of the forthcoming book “Equal Worth — When Humanity Will Have Peace.” His email is ashamoo@som.umaryland.edu.

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12 comments on “The Rise of Islamist Democracy

  1. Thank you for the article. Israel and the US Govt. have different definitions for democracy, demonstrated over the past 60 years!

    • you’re so naive; you might get what you wish for, a medievalist fundamentalist state in Eygpt, and other countries such as Libya and Tunesia. Israel is the only democracy in the region, where women are not executed or stoned to death for “blasphemy”

      • One needs extraordinary qualities to tell lies to generate such remarks and you acquire these qualities only after having special relationship with Israel which is the only democracy(well not the only) where people are free to invent lies and propagate them as truth.

  2. rosemerry on said:

    I think it is a bit arrogant to suggest the USA can offer “Arabs the educational and technical assistance they hunger for to promote their economic growth.” Do you really believe the USA, in its economic turmoil, its pitiful educational systems, its extreme judeo-christian hypocrites who think they are experts in Arabic and Islam, can help anyone else to advance?
    Apart from that, a great post!

    • Yeah, Rosemerry, I think America “can” offer the educational and technical assistance. The question is, “will” we? The answer is, when have we ever made a meaningful, consistent, sustained effort to offer educational and technical assistance to the third world? What I have come to see instead is a nation that plunders the third world for its natural resources. I am sorry to have discovered it too late in life.

  3. No wonder this is happening in so many Muslim dominated states as people living in these states always believed only a system based on Islamic principles can guarantee them peace, justice and true progress which they have been denied for so long. In reality Islam is the only religion that provides answers to political, social, economical and religious needs of humanity today. It’s laws apparently seem harsh but a deeper look will reveille they are in the best intrest of society as a whole. The least Islam deserve from the West is a deeper and un-biased study.

    • What have you been smokin’?

      • I know your criticism but what you see practiced in these countries is not Islam because true Islam has not been allowed a chance during modren times. West has always installed and supported brutal corrupt regimens who never did anything for their populations other than serving their Westren masters and thus gaining extension to their rule. As a result these countries are Muslim only by name and people there suffer from double jeopardy: On one hand they bear full brunt of antimuslim propaganda and on the other hand they have been deprived of true blessings of Islam. As I said earlier, on superficial analysis you will find Islamic Laws very harsh but they gaurantee peace and justice if practiced in their true spirit.

  4. And may be, just may be they find an alternative to the soulless systems of Capitalism and Communism!

  5. Short-lived Shibboleth of a Moderate Egypt
    Islamists’ election victory leaves Western predictions in shambles

    By Tony Blankley, The Washington Times, December 5, 2011

    [Editor's Note: A shibboleth is a belief usually regarded by others as false or empty of real meaning.]

    One of the nice things about human history is that no matter how much people or their leaders misjudge events and make a hash of things, within a few centuries, the debris is cleared away and we can have a another go at getting things right.

    Yes, I am thinking about the Middle East and the latest mix-up by the experts—their assessment just a few months ago of the nature of the Arab Spring and its democracy movement. Back in the spring, leading experts—from the Obama administration to the neoconservatives on the right to the major liberal media to most of the academic area specialists—were overwhelmingly predicting that all those great secular, liberal, college-educated kids with their iPhones in Tahrir Square represented the new Egypt and would bring all their wonderful values to the revolution. It was primarily us cranky right-wingers who have been writing about radical Islamic politics (and, of course, the Israelis, who can’t afford to get it wrong on Muslim political habits) who warned that this was all going to end in the rise in still-ancient Egypt of radical Islamist, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti American, anti-Western governance.

    So our government—as I said, cheered on by neoconservatives as well as liberals—undercut Hosni Mubarak’s regime and told us not to worry about the Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood was a group of really old, tired men who were no longer really radical and had been propped up just to provide the regime with an opposition punching bag. Armed with their social-media devices, the kids would run rings around the sorry excuse for Islamists and deliver real democracy.

    Hadn’t any of those experts been to Egypt? There are not a lot of secular liberals hanging out—even at the universities—let alone in the thousands of villages and urban slums. Who the heck did the experts think those angry, bearded men were who were roaming around glaring at Westerners and Muslim women who dared to walk on the street? I saw them back in the 1960s and ’70s, and they were scary even then. By the way, as I recall, Tahrir Square was pretty much a circle. But who’s counting when you are having deranged, liberal fantasies? Even if these experts on Sunday political round-table chatters had not been to Egypt, perhaps it was a clue that a Pew poll in the spring said 65 percent of the public would vote Islamist.

    The early returns are in. (There are still two more rounds of voting in 18 of the country’s 27 provinces over the next month.) The Islamists look likely to get 65 percent 70 percent of the eventual vote. According to the High Election Commission, the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party got about 36 percent, while the Salafist Nour Party got a stunning 25 percent. The Salafists are the hysterical wing of the fundamentally reactionary general Muslim population, while the Brotherhood is merely the fanatical wing.

    The grand total for all the parties that, by the ancient cultural standards of Pharaonic Egypt, are considered the liberal-secular bloc—the makers of the glorious Arab Spring democracy was, wait for it—13 percent. I predict that if any of them try to practice any of that liberal-secular stuff in public, either the military eventually will lock them up or the Salafists eventually will beat them up or kill them on the street. Adios, liberal-secular Egypt, we hardly new ya. Hello, kill the Coptic Christians and the Jews.

    Of course, the various ever-bewildered wire services and newspapers are reporting the “unpredicted,” “unexpected” size of the Islamist vote while taking to calling the Brotherhood, in its 2.0 form, “moderate.” But anyway, not to worry. As our brother in journalism Jackson Diehl wrote in this weekend’s Washington Post, he has talked with various former terrorists and Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt, and he assures us that “the ascendancy of parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood should not be as alarming as many in the West suppose. … The biggest reason for this is that the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the more fundamentalist parties to its right, has renounced violence.”

    Well, that’s a relief. I suppose the Brotherhood also has no more territorial demands. Oh, wait a moment. Mr. Diehl notes that the Brotherhood’s platform does say that Egypt should “aid and support the Palestinian people and Palestinian resistance against the Zionist usurpers of their homeland.” So, I guess, after they kill all the Jews, they will stop practicing violence. Of course, even then there will be the little matter of the Brotherhood’s credo: “God is our objective; the Koran is our constitution; the prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; and death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations.” But it’s OK. That is the moderate wing of the upcoming Egyptian parliament.

    • This writer seems to be in severe agony and the reason is why a vast majority of people want what they want and why don’t they opt for status quo where they should keep on being oppressed by the same brutal regimens who keep their masters happy by maintaining Israel’s status as of a threatening rather than threatened. So it’s not about democracy as much as it is about preserving special interests. show us some moral courage sir.

  6. Good article Mr Shamoo – - – it gives us a different perspective from the chronic ones we encounter here in the US MSM.