Post-uprising, Arabs get not democracy, but religious autocrats

Post-uprising, Arabs get not democracy, but religious autocrats

The latest country to choose fundamentalists over secular democrats is Egypt, where the moderate Muslim Brotherhood and hard line Saudi-inspired Salafis have taken 61 per cent of the votes in the first of three rounds in the parliamentary election. The centrist Wasat Party founded by former Muslim Brothers took 4.3 per cent, boosting the total to nearly two-thirds of the vote for parties rooted in religious politics. The trend, set in this round, is expected to continue through the second on December 14-15 and the third on January 3-4.

In a bid to allay fears over the rise of the fundamentalists, the Brotherhood’s political party, Freedom and Justice has said it will not form a coalition with the Salafi Noor Party.

Freedom and Justice prefers an alliance with Wasat and the Egyptian Bloc, a grouping of three secular parties which took 13.4 per cent, and the liberal Wafd which won 7.1 per cent.

Once the results came out, a Freedom and Justice spokesman stated that a new government should be formed by parliament rather than the military council which assumed executive powers following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

Since this could have meant confronting the military, the Brotherhood’s chief guide Muhammad Morsi promptly dismissed this assertion and said Freedom and Justice would cooperate with the military council, confirming suspicions that the Brotherhood seeks to partner the generals in government.

The Salafis have also signalled that they could go along with such a plan. This could put the fundamentalists and the generals on a collision course with the secular revolutionaries who mounted the uprising and can still stir unrest in Egypt’s main cities where the revolutionaries are strong and vocal. In Tunisia, the first Arab country where people’s power overthrew a veteran leader, the moderate and modest al-Nahda (Renaissance) Party took 89 of the 217 seats in the country’s new assembly which is tasked with drawing up a constitution. Although Moroccans did not oust their king, they did compel him to initiate reforms, draft a new constitution, and hold elections in which the fundamentalist Justice and Development Party also won the largest bloc of seats in parliament.

In Libya, leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group are now in influential positions in Tripoli and Benghazi and are determined to play an important role in governance of that country. In Syria, the secular Assad regime - which is still firmly in control - faces a range of locally-based opposition groups, some of which rely on members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood for mass backing while the body representing exiles, the Syrian National Council, has heavy Brotherhood representation.

Political and economic reform

Finally, the Jordanian Brotherhood is leading the campaign for political and economic reform in the kingdom but has, so far, not challenged King Abdullah who has delivered little change. The fundamentalists’ surge in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt could transform North Africa and West Asia. The well-organised fundamentalists have won seats in the parliaments of these countries legitimately, through the ballot box.

Their leftist and liberal opponents failed to secure strong representation in parliament for several reasons. They were divided, disorganised and could not counter the appeal fundamentalists made to the religious sensitivities and aspirations of the conservative majority: poorly educated devout voters from urban slums and rural areas. The devout majority wants to see Muslim canon law, Sharia, as the basis of law and legislation.

Tunisia’s al-Nahda, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are committed to ‘civil states’ (secular polities) and to investment in education, social and welfare services, a minimum wage, and upgrading of infrastructure in underdeveloped areas. If these parties do not deliver, radical elements can be expected to reject the ‘gradualist approach’ to ‘Islamisation’ adopted by the moderates and exert strong pressure for acceptance of the radicals’ agenda.

Their aim is to turn their countries into ‘Islamic states.’ The moderates will however try to mollify them by imposing conservative cultural practices on their societies, alienating secularists and, particularly, in Egypt, the country's eight million Christians who are deeply apprehensive about their future. The rise of fundamentalists across the Arab world is bringing down the curtain on an era of secular pan-Arab nationalism represented by the Syrian Social National Party, the Nasserist movement, and the Baath Party. These parties failed.

They did not unite the Arabs, bring economic development to a majority of Arabs, or end Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the core Arab political cause. It was not, however, entirely the secular nationalists’ fault that they failed. During their period of ascendancy they were constantly undermined by Muslim fundamentalists, who had the support not only of Saudi Arabia and conservative Gulf states but also the US and Israel.  They sought to counter the Arab aspiration for unity which would challenge US and Israeli politico-military hegemony, particularly in West Asia where oil and Israel are the chief interests of the US and the west.

The US, Israel and the west seem to have overlooked the fact that the fundamentalists also have a long-term dream of unity - pan-Islamic unity among Sunni Muslims. This could lead to confrontation with Iran, the main Shia power in the region, and its ally Iraq, as well as all-out rejection of Israel, which is regarded by Muslims not only as an illegal occupier of Palestine but also a usurper of sacred Muslim land.

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