Islamists, elections and the Arab spring: And the winner is…
IS THE Arab spring turning into bleak midwinter? Earlier this year the revolutions sweeping through the region seemed encouragingly modern and secular. Indeed, the young Facebookers and Twitterers braving the bullets in Cairo and Tunis seemed to give the lie to the dictators’ claims that the only alternative to the thuggery of a strongman was mullah-led theocracy. But look across the Arab world today and political Islam has jumped to the fore (see article).
Egypt offers the most dramatic example. The relatively mild-mannered Muslim Brotherhood, the best-organised of the Arab movements espousing an ideology that bases its message on the texts of Islam, is winning the three-stage election to Egypt’s parliament by a wider margin than pundits predicted, with 46% of the seats so far. Far more frightening is the party coming second, with 21% of the seats. The Salafists, whose name denotes a desire to emulate the “predecessors” who were early followers of the Prophet Muhammad, decry alcohol, pop music and other aspects of Western lifestyle. They want to ban interest in banks, think women should cover themselves and stay at home, would segregate the sexes in public, might turn Christians, around a tenth of Egypt’s 85m people, into second-class citizens and denigrate Jews, not to mention the people of Israel. Assuming that the two Islamist parties do no worse in the next two rounds this month and next, generally in more conservative areas, they will control a clear majority of seats; the only question is whether the Brothers will keep their promise not to team up and rule together.
In Tunisia and Morocco Islamists of a similar stripe to the Brotherhood have handsomely won elections. In Libya, with Muammar Qaddafi gone, they may yet do so too. In Syria they are prominent in an opposition front that may eventually displace Bashar Assad. And in Palestine the Islamists of Hamas, a branch of the Muslim Brothers that still on paper rejects the state of Israel, are as secure as ever in control of Gaza. Even in chaotic Yemen, an Islamist party might well emerge as the biggest party if elections are held as promised.
In Iraq Muqtada al-Sadr, a fiery mullah, has the power to veto decisions he dislikes—and has succeeded in enforcing the removal of all American troops by the end of the year. Though unchallenged at any ballot box, the royal rulers of Saudi Arabia remain in hock to a deeply intolerant clerical establishment. Moreover, the two other great peoples of the region, the Turks and Persians, are both under the sway of governments with an Islamist label, albeit of wildly different hues. Indeed, political Islam now has more clout in the region than at any time since the Ottoman empire collapsed almost a century ago, and perhaps since Napoleon brought a modernising message to the Arab world when he invaded Egypt in 1798.