According the official account of American policy in the Middle East, one of the Bush administration’s main objectives in Iraq is to establish a beacon of freedom and democracy as an example to the rest of the Arab world. That is of course no more than a public-relations sop for particularly gullible observers and the media and analysts who uncritically accept all official pronouncements. The reasons that the US is in fact scared stiff of the possibility of genuine democracy in the Middle East was demonstrated in Egypt last month, when the people of the largest country in the Arab world indicated their support for the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood), the country’s oldest and most established Islamic movement, which is officially banned but unofficially tolerated to a degree simply because of the support it enjoys among Egypt’s people.
As Crescent went to press, the Ikhwan had won 76 of the 444 contested seats in Parliament, a far better result than any opposition group had ever achieved against Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). With another round of polling due to take place early this month, its total standing in Parliament may top 100 seats, compared to the 15 it held in the previous parliament, which had been elected under far more oppressive government restrictions. It should not, however, be thought that these were free elections; they were held under severe restrictions, and under rules designed to ensure victory for the NDP. Once the Ikhwan’s strong showing became evident in the first round of polling, the second round was preceded by arrests of Ikhwan activists and security measures designed to prevent Ikhwan supporters from voting (see p. 9).
Although the NDP will continue to hold a massive majority in Parliament, it will have to acknowledge the Ikhwan’s standing as the country’s main opposition party, and therefore effectively its most popular political force. What form this acknowledgement will take remains to be seen. Officially the Ikhwan remains banned and the government could respond to its successes by cracking down on it again, as it continues to do from time to time. This, however, is dangerous, given the support and popularity that the Ikhwan has proven to have. It would also be embarrassing for the Mubarak regimes’s allies in Washington, who would not want to see one of their closest allies being too openly repressive of dissent at a time when they are claiming to be champions of freedom an democracy in the region.
It is more likely, therefore, that the Mubarak regime will try to blunt the Ikhwan’s appeal by co-opting it into the official system as a sort of loyal and permanent opposition party. This is precisely what the Jordanian establishment has done in Jordan, where the Ikhwan remains as an opposition of sorts, but often seems to be buttressing the state rather than opposing it. In fact, it is precisely what the Egyptian government has been inching towards in recent years, by allowing the Ikhwan to operate unofficially and dangling the carrot of official recognition if it does not make too much of a nuisance of itself.
The problems of Islamic movements trying to work through electoral processes established and dominated by the existing regimes of Muslim countries have long been recognised. The repeated and total failure of the Jama’at-e Islamic in Pakistan, and the various Islamist parties in Turkey, Malaysia andIndonesia, all point to the same conclusion: that it is virtually impossible for an Islamic movement to break the grip on power currently held by post-colonial regimes by opposing them from within. The experience of Algeria, where the FIS came within a whisker of achieving power through the government’s electoral mechanism in 1991, before the elections were declared null and void by the country’s military government, launching a civil war that lasted for most of the next decade, is an extreme example. It is unlikely that any genuinely Islamic party or movement will ever again be permitted to get near enough to power for a regime to have to take such direct and drastic acton.
Many Muslims will celebrate the successes of the Ikhwan in Egypt’s elections, therefore, and rightly so, as they demonstrate the fact that the ordinary people of the Arab world’s most populous and politically important country continue to look to Islam for solutions to their problems, despite the efforts of the government to promote secular ideologies, and of the Americans to discredit Islam by associating it with extremism and terrorism. Nonetheless, there are also worrying signs that the Ikhwan’s increasing involvement in electoral politics is blunting its oppositional edge. One example of this came two months ago, in the run-up to the presidential elections, which were carefully timed to take place before the parliamentary ones, to ensure that their results were not distorted by the populist fervour of the more participatory parliamentary polls. At a time when Egyptian opposition leaders were lining up to condemn the polls as hopelessly skewed in Mubarak’s favour, and allowing no possibility of his being voted out of office, the Ikhwan were notable by their silence on the subject. This was particularly surprising as they had not even been permitted to run a candidate in the presidential polls. Eventually Ikhwan leaders surprised everyone by suggesting that Egyptians should not boycott the elections, as this would be to spurn a hard-won right. The reasons for this position are clear, of course: the Ikhwan were concerned that too confrontational an approach at that time would endanger their participation in these parliamentary elections, in which they expected to do well.
This episode demonstrates perfectly the main problem of participation in non-Islamic political processes: there is no level of participation that does not involve the acceptance and legitimisation of the framework within which the processes are taking place. Such acceptance, no matter how logical it is itmay be on pragmatic, political grounds, inevitably involves compromise not only on pragmatic grounds, but by implication on points of principle as well.
The Ikhwan will undoubtedly be able to achieve short-term progress and objectives from their new position of strength in Egypt’s political system, but the system is designed to support the pro-western, secular military establishment, and that will not change. What invariably happens is that it is the Islamic movements that have to change to enable them to operate in the strange seas of secular politics, and in the process they lose the very idealism and principles that gave them their legitimacy and appeal in the first place. The experience of the Jama’at-e Islami in Pakistan is instructive in this regard. Once regarded as the vehicles for an Islamic Revolution in the country, they are now seen as little more than politicians like any other. It is impossible, by contrast, to imagine Imam Khomeini or Imam Khamenei a similar situation; the Islamic Revolution in Iran was based on the principle of totally uncompromising articulation of the principled truth in all circumstances, regardless any short-term political consideration.
As Islamic movements fall into such traps, there are those within them who recognise the dangers and try to redirect the movements towards better paths. Such voices tend to be drowned out in the excitement of short-term successes, but in the long run must emerge, either within the movements in question or outside them, to offer alternative leadership for Muslims seeking Islamic solutions to the problems that they face. If the Ikhwan is to remain the leading edge of Islamic activism in Egypt, these voices must emerge soon; otherwise, it risks being absorbed into the morass of Egyptian politics and rendered irrelevant to the long-term future of Egypt, just as the Jama’at-e Islami is all but irrelevant to the future of Pakistan.