Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Embracing Brotherhood welcomes not democracy but war

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As the AP reported on Sunday, the final results of the recent Moroccan elections confirm a victory, if not a majority, for Morocco's Islamist party. These elections form a part of the series of reforms implemented by the Moroccan King in order to quell the country's brief spell of Arab Spring-style protests.

Announcing final results Sunday, the ministry said the Justice and Development Party has taken 107 seats in the 395-seat legislature following the nationwide vote two days earlier.

The PJD - known by its French initials - is the latest Islamist party to win an election brought about by the Arab Spring. The right-of-center Istiqlal, a potential ally for the PJD, placed second with 60 seats.

Morocco may be the most recent country to have ostensibly voted an Islamist party into power, but it will not be the last. As the long-promised elections in Egypt are finally being held, there is only one party that is tipped for victory: the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. As one of their members explained to the Guardian, the Brotherhood is ready for the elections. This is the culmination of an 80-year campaign for the hearts and minds of Egypt.

In a sparse meeting room in southern Cairo, a volunteer from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood sits with his feet up, talking with colleagues about how to make Monday's national poll run smoothly.

"People say the election shouldn't be held because the preparation hasn't been done," he said.

"But they need to understand that this campaign for us has been 80 years long. There is nothing more left to do."

That the Brotherhood has been waging an active political campaign for the better part of a century exposes the underlying problem with Egyptian democracy. The problem was illustrated very well by Timothy Spangler for the Jerusalem Post:

A young Egyptian woman, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, this week received what all bloggers and Internet self-publicists seek - national and international notoriety. She accomplished this feat by posting a naked picture of herself online, in an attempt to make a personal statement about free speech and sexual identity in modern Muslim societies.

What would be a notable, but not uncommon, act of protest on an American college campus has ripped across Egypt and the wider Islamic world with a fury and intensity that the 20-year-old former university student could not have envisioned. Both conservative religious groups and those parties staking out a more moderate and liberal middle ground have rapidly criticized her, turning her into a potent symbol for where Egypt is headed.

... Unlike many Western democracies, with traditions of individuals and minority groups pushing the boundaries of social and political conventions, Egypt and the Arab Spring countries remain societies in which dissent and protest are limited, fragile concepts.

Contrary to what seems to be the accepted norm, elections are not the most important element of a democracy. It is understandable that most who live in a democracy would think of elections as the most important step - they are the most tangible single act of participation that a democracy entails - but that is mostly due to the fact that we take everything else for granted.

What good are elections, after all, if there is only one party to vote for anyway? Or if, as in Egypt, the parties are so numerous and so poorly organised that there is little real choice? Before holding elections, Egypt needs a strong civil society with open debate and the rule of law, where a young woman can make a racy point without being excommunicated from the entire nation. The protesters in Tahrir square may be mostly secular, but they are by no means a serious political force and they cannot possibly hope to compete with the well-developed machine that is the Brotherhood.

In fact, this is why pundits, such as former al-Jazeera head Wadan Khanfar, can be so dangerous. Khanfar was published in the Guardian yesterday (and re-published in the Age this morning) attempting to induce Wester support for the impending Islamist governments. 

Now there is a unique opportunity for the west: to demonstrate that it will no longer support despotic regimes by supporting instead the democratic process in the Arab world, by refusing to intervene in favour of one party against another and by accepting the results of the democratic process, even when it is not the result they would have chosen.

The arguments he used, however, unintentionally demonstrate why the West should not support these regimes.

First, we must define our terms. "Islamist" is used in the Muslim world to describe Muslims who participate in the public sphere, using Islam as a basis. It is understood that this participation is not at odds with democracy. In the west, however, the term routinely describes those who use violence as a means and an end - thus Jihadist Salafism, exemplified by al-Qaida, is called "Islamist" in the west, despite the fact that it rejects democratic political participation (Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, criticised Hamas when it decided to take part in the elections for the Palestinian legislative council, and has repeatedly criticised the Muslim Brotherhood for opposing the use of violence) ... Reform-based Islamic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, work within the political process ... The Syrian experience convinced mainstream Islamic movements to avoid armed struggle and to observe "strategic patience" instead.

Of course, this is hardly reassuring. The group may have differed with Al Qaeda on means, but the end result envisioned by the two groups is essentially the same: a global Islamic superstate as close as possible to seventh century Arabia as possible, albeit with some special clerical dispensation to use more modern technology - like AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.

His second point is even less reasurring.

Second, we must understand the history of the region ... Islamic movements have often been in opposition, but since the 1940s they have participated in parliamentary elections, entered alliances with secular, nationalist and socialist groups, and participated in several governments - in Sudan, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria. They have also forged alliances with non-Islamic regimes, like the Nimeiri regime in Sudan in 1977.

A number of other events have had an impact on the collective Muslim mind, and have led to the maturation of political Islam: the much-debated Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979; the military coup in Sudan in 1989; the success of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front in the 1991 elections and the army's subsequent denial of its right to govern; the conquest of much of Afghan territory by the Taliban in 1996 leading to the establishment of its Islamic emirate; and the success in 2006 of Hamas in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections.

It is almost mind boggling that someone would use these examples in an article in favour of embracing political Islamism. Khanfar rattled through a list of failed states, brutal regimes and protracted conflicts. The above list should serve as a dire warning to anyone who is leaning towards welcoming this new Islamist dominance in the Arab world. Every time Islamists have come into power, they have succeeded in curbing democracy and imposing an extremely violent and intolerant rule over their people, while almost universally delivering a worse quality of life than the country enjoyed under their predecessors (one exception arguably being Turkey).

In many ways, liberal comentators are imputing their own experiences and morality onto Islamist groups through assumptions such as that once the Islamists take power, they will behave the same as any other democratically-oriented governing parties in the West. As the theory goes, they will not change their societies fundamentally, but will introduce incremental reforms, staying inside a broad democratic framework. As Barry Rubin wrote recently:

[The assumption amongst most Western commentators] is that politicians just want to get into power but have no idea of how to deal with problems or even a coherent worldview. Soon deadlock will set in and nothing is really going to change. It is the sarcasm fit for an open, non-ideological system where individual ambition prevails. But as long as there's always another election, we know that things will be all right and life will be tolerable.

Not so in the Arabic-speaking Middle East. These politicians know precisely what they want to do: seize state power (albeit by peaceful means, if possible), fundamentally transform their societies, and hold onto state power forever. And they are capable of changing things a lot.

In fact, the real Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly hidden. To know the group that is about to take over Egypt, you could easily look at their celebrity clerics,  their treatment of Coptic Christians or their rallies where they gather en-masse and chant "death to all Jews". Moreover, their biggest supportersnorth of the Sinai are Hamas - themselves an offshoot of the Brotherhood. Hamas is certain to be strengthened by Brotherhood participation in Egyptian politics, which bodes very ill for peace in the region.

Egypt's ruling military council is facing a serious dilemma. They know all too well the tragedy that allowing the Brotherhood to take power would bring, yet they have been very clearly rejected by their people and their days in power certainly seem to be numbered. The outlook, therefore, is very bleak. This would explain why the deputy leader of the Israeli opposition has been cautioning for the country to prepare for the peace treaty with Egypt to be dissolved.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

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