The Middle East Channel

The illusive rise of Islamists

The results of the first round of polling in Egypt have released an uproar, which has overwhelmed the media and startled the public sphere. But the victory of Islamist parties is overrated. Given Islamists’ entrenched presence in the Arab societies, politically, economically, and socially, let alone the abundant religious propaganda, it is more striking that ...

ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

The results of the first round of polling in Egypt have released an uproar, which has overwhelmed the media and startled the public sphere. But the victory of Islamist parties is overrated. Given Islamists’ entrenched presence in the Arab societies, politically, economically, and socially, let alone the abundant religious propaganda, it is more striking that thus far none of the Islamists parties have obtained an absolute majority in recent elections. Islamists in Tunis, Morocco, and Egypt cannot claim superiority over other political forces. The seeming triumph of Islamist forces will soon be revealed as an illusion.

In Tunis, the Ennahda Party won only 37 percent of constituent assembly seats (89 out of 217), which placed them ahead of other political parties but did not grant Ennhada the final word in writing the new constitution or in forming a unilateral government. In Morocco, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) barely won 27 percent in the elections (107 out of 395 of seats) with less than 46 percent voter turnout. True, the PJD received more than double the votes it won in the last elections (the party got 47 seats in 2007 elections), and it is the first time for a party to get this number of seats since the first Moroccan elections in 1963. However, the peculiarity and complexity of the Moroccan electoral system (which creates a fractured parliament) does not guarantee a single party dominance over the legislature.

In Egypt, for sure, Islamists have so far fared well in the first round of elections and are expected to maintain their success. However, it is off base to assume that they will control an unshakable majority of the new parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the iconic and the most potent Islamist movement in the Arab world, received just 36.6 percent of votes in the first round despite its long-standing experience in running election campaigns. (Although the movement had officially been banned for decades, many Brothers ran in elections as "independent" candidates.)

The greater surprise lies in the relative success of the ultraconservative salafists, the dark horse of the Egyptian elections, who garnered 24.3 percent of the votes. But it is highly unexpected that they will achieve the same proportion in the two upcoming phases of elections. Not only because of their unwise and naïve Islamic rhetoric which has overshadowed the media over the past few weeks, but also because they will confront their more moderate Islamist counterparts, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Wasat Party. In the run-off elections between individual candidates this week, the Brotherhood crushed their salafi rivals, winning nearly ten times as many seats.

One of the major fears associated with the rise of the Islamists is that they will use their power to reshape political institutions in their favor. But in fact, these elections will not change the rules of the game in favor of the newcomers and empower them. Not one of the "rising" Islamist parties will be able to take real power from the incumbent rulers – at least not from their performance at the ballot box.

In Tunis, as well as in Morocco and Egypt, Islamists parties that won the elections will not be able to significantly alter the status quo to their benefit. First, the embedded authoritarian structures are still functioning and the old elite is vibrant. The heavy legacy of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak will impede any attempt by new governments to dismantle these structures. For instance, the Ennahda Party, after forming a coalition government that is still under intensive negotiations, will grapple with two old and entrenched institutions: the army and the security establishment. Both will fight to preclude any fundamental changes that might affect their interests. The Tunisian army showed a remarkable degree of self-restraint from grabbing power after Ben Ali fled; however, its generals are not angels. They view the army as "the guardian of the republic" which might hint to an oversight if not a soft patronage role particularly if civilians could not tame their roles in the new constitution. They will attentively monitor the political scene from behind the curtain. It is much worse with the security forces, which will not bow to the new realities easily. Any attempt to rehabilitate them to fit into the new democratic settings might undermine the whole process of transition.

In Morocco, the monarch is sovereign, untouchable and operates above politics. The constitutional amendments that were approved last July in a celebrated referendum do not confer much power to the parliament. They reorganized the political domain to become more visible, yet ineffective. The PJD will form a weak government that will seek to appease the monarchy and the street at the same time. Not surprisingly, the PJD is not positioning itself as a contender to the palace (al-Makhzan), which retains the full power over the state and society.

In Egypt, it is even more blatant. The military is the only player in town and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) appears unlikely to cede power to the Muslim Brotherhood or any other political party. The new parliament, which will likely be led by Islamists, will therefore be ineffective and constrained. According to a constitutional declaration approved by a popular referendum last March, the SCAF has the exclusive power to assign and dismiss the government. In a recent message sent through SCAF General Mamdouh Shaeen, legal assistant to the defense minister, the leading parties in the elections will not be able to form the government, dissolve the SCAF’s appointed government, or question its ministers. More ironically, the parliament will not have the authority to craft the new constitution without the SCAF’s oversight.

Therefore, the mere outcome of the on-going elections will merely add to the fragmented and divisive political scene.

None of the Islamist parties will form a unilateral government. They will have to bargain, build coalitions, and make concessions. By doing so, Islamists will have to rein in their political ambitions and show elasticity in sharing power. More significantly, as a part of transition dynamics, Islamists are more prone to abandon their original goals, such as building an Islamic state and applying the Islamic law (sharia). The recent statements of Islamists leaders in Tunis, Morocco, and Egypt show a tendency toward re-prioritizing their agenda to become more pragmatic and realistic. Instead of focusing on the sacred and identity issues, they have been inclined to address more mundane and practical problems including reforming education, fighting corruption, and rebuilding infrastructure.

With the ethos of the Arab Spring still thriving, the young Arabs will not tolerate any violation of personal freedoms and human rights. The new "Islamist" governments will be required not only to give assurances of respecting political pluralism, minorities’ rights, freedom of speech, and so forth, but more importantly will need to provide genuine concessions pertaining to their Islamic pursuits. In other words, the pressure on Islamists will not be confined to their political positions, whereby they can shrewdly maneuver against their adversaries, but more importantly will affect their ideological convictions, which will subvert their "illusive" rise.

Khalil al-Anani is a Scholar at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, UK and a former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute. He can be reached at: k.m.ibrahim@durham.ac.uk

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