Call for greater democracy is still valid

Gulf News, January 9, 2006

Supporters of the status quo in the Muslim world have argued for years that democracy is likely to result in radical Islamists replacing stable pro-Western regimes. At first glance, the success of the radical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s recent legislative elections provides evidence for that point of view. In fact, however, the Islamists’ gains highlight the need for greater democracy in Muslim countries, not less.

That the Islamists are a factor in Egyptian politics, and will probably remain so for a long time to come, is not in doubt. Islamist sympathisers often wonder how the international community can object to politicians seeking votes on the basis of Islam when invoking Christianity for political purposes remains legitimate especially in the United States. But having conservative religious formations participating in a democratic polity is one thing; proclaiming a totalitarian vision of a religious state, in which only one interpretation of religion is allowed to function, quite another.

To their credit, Egypt’s Muslim Brothers have tried very hard in recent years to define themselves as a conservative, religiously-based political force even though the group’s origins (still manifested by its many offshoots) were anti-democratic.
But the real explanation for the Muslim Brotherhood’s political success lies elsewhere.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has refused to open up political space for secular opposition groups, elevating the Islamists to the status of the only opposition remaining in the field. A similar process of excluding viable secular opponents from the political arena is under way in several Muslim countries, creating a false choice between authoritarian pro-Western rulers and elected Islamist hardliners. Officials in Western countries often cite that choice as the reason for persisting with their support for the autocrats who provide stable governments and ostensibly protect their societies from obscurantism.
The Muslim Brotherhood, formed in 1928, is the parent organisation of most radical Islamist groups in the Arab world.

Allowed to operate

Although officially banned in Egypt, it is allowed to operate in the shadows and its candidates participated as independents in Egypt’s legislative elections. In the elections that concluded on December 8, the Brotherhood won 88 seats, up from only 15 in the current assembly. This gives them 19 per cent of the seats in parliament, still leaving Mubarak’s state-sponsored National Democratic Party with 333 seats in the 440-member parliament a two-thirds majority. But the Islamists had put up candidates for only 130 out of 440 seats and they could have gained more seats if they had put up more candidates.

The Brotherhood’s electoral success comes amid reports of the Mubarak regime making special efforts to keep secular opponents out of parliament. Authorities worked hard to defeat Ayman Nour, leader of the Al Ghad (Tomorrow) Party. Nour, a Western educated businessman could be considered a viable alternative to Air Force General Mubarak in a way that a Muslim Brotherhood leader simply cannot.

The Brotherhood gained from anti-government sentiment amidst a low turnout. Hardcore Brotherhood supporters came out to vote while the regime’s secular opponents were kept away from the polls by intimidation and the knowledge that the elections will not change the way Egypt is governed. Muslim Brotherhood leaders concede that many of their voters cast their ballot against the government rather than for radical Islam.

In some ways, Egypt’s electoral results were a rerun of the 2002 parliamentary elections in Pakistan. General Pervez Musharraf, who like Egypt’s Mubarak is much favoured by the United States, helped the emergence of Islamist groups as his main opposition in an effort to reduce the political viability of secular opposition politicians.

The threat of radical Islam has become the major excuse for Muslim potentates in thwarting real change in the way their countries are governed. For the sake of stability in the region, the US is willing to embrace the dichotomy presented to it. Washington defines democratisation as its priority but refuses to condemn those that obstruct its democracy agenda, namely the Muslim potentates Americans trust with ensuring stability.

These strategic American allies are not the force for ideological moderation that would change the Muslim world’s longer term direction. In fact, under their rule radical groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are continuously gaining in strength and influence.

If Muslim societies were truly opened to political contestation, the influence of the Islamist formations would be relative to their size within society. Only in elections that are held with the hands of secular democrats tied behind their backs do extremists manage to translate the support of a devoted minority into a large number of seats in legislatures.