By Mohamed El Mokhtar
One of the most significant consequences of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is the forceful emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as an influential political force and social movement in the Middle East. The movement seems, like a phoenix emerging from its ashes, capable of miraculous rebirth. Although its members were persecuted, to varying degrees, under the previous regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in particular, their political marginalization ironically enabled them to better refocus their energy on social activities. Thus, they were able to maintain, despite being legally banned, direct contact with local populations. Throughout the region they developed in the last decades, in Egypt in particular, a vast network of social structures often competing with or outbidding the government in the delivery of vital public services such as health and education and even in relief efforts during natural disasters.
Ultimately this long term direct engagement with civilian populations was critical in the development of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political leadership. In fact, the secret of its popular grounding lies primarily in its ability to cater to the basic needs of so many destitute people in the Arab world through its well established network of volunteers and welfare institutions.
After the fall of the dictatorships of Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine in Tunisia, the MB unsurprisingly turned out to be the most politically and socially organized political force. The triumph in November of the Islamist party Ennahda in the first free and democratic elections of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, in addition to the victory of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt this month, is testimony of its startling emergence. Moreover, the victory of the Libyan rebels, who have close connections at the grassroots as well as the leadership level with the local chapter of the MB, constitutes another indication of what may be a prelude to a new political dawn in the whole MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.
From Morocco in the Maghreb to Syria in the Levant, the islamization of Arab societies seems an irreversible trend, which may mark a turning point in the political reconfiguration of this geostrategic region. The current Syrian and Yemeni uprisings are dominated by forces linked more or less to the MB such as the Yemeni Congregation for Reform to which belongs the 2011 Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakul Karman.
Another consequence of this resurrection of the MB is perhaps the ongoing reconfiguration of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The expected reconciliation with Fatah and its eventual integration to the PLO may be a turning point in the evolution of the movement. Substituting a pragmatism-based view of national liberation, more in line with the ethos of the PLO, to the demagoguery of armed struggle will progressively change the outlook of the militant group. An intifada a la Tahrir Square or a la Soweto will, in the end, be more consequential for the Palestinian quest for Freedom than an armed resistance that is neither organized nor well thought out.
The Muslim Brotherhood has also a strong grounding in Jordan. The Islamic Action Front Party (IAFP), currently the main opposition party, would in all likelihood be the main political party had there been free and democratic elections in the country. It has gained over the years a relatively strong footing in Kuwait’s political landscape with the political party El Hadeth despite that country’s archaic political system and continuing institutional volatility. The newly director of Al Jazeera News network Sheikh Hamed Ben Thamer Al Thany is believed to have strong connections with the movement. The network overall editorial line is very sympathetic to the ideology of the movement. Its conspicuously biased reports of the recent uprisings in Libya and Syria are a good indicator of its leaning in favor of the movement.
Furthermore, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood is noticeable throughout North Africa and the Middle East. In effect, it is today a very influential social and political movement that is represented in parliaments in countries as far afield as Mauritania where the party Tawassoul is one of the major opposition parties.
But the center of gravity of the movement remains undoubtedly Egypt. Its evolution in that country will be the most determining factor in its development elsewhere in the Arab world. Given the importance of Egypt, being at once the cultural center of gravity and the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, an ascendance to power of the movement will have tremendous effects in the region; so will a structural reform of the movement. It would be tempting for instance to examine how the idea of the “Turkish model”[i] is now used there in Muslim Brotherhood’s public speeches. Although it is beyond the scope of this text it would, nevertheless, be interesting to probe the current change in political rhetoric and see whether it’s the expression of a fundamental revision of ideology or a mere electoral strategy.
Given the diverging historical evolution of Turkey and Egypt in the twentieth century, it is hard to imagine a replication of the Turkish model in Egypt. There is no historical equivalent of Kemal Attaturk, much less a unified officer class committed to imposing a secular republican order in Egypt. Moreover, the modernizing trends of Nasserite pan-Arabism fell short of the westernizing secularism of Kemal Attaturk. Notwithstanding these obvious differences, the countries also have important points in common. They both were open to Western influences at critical historical junctures. They have, albeit to varying degrees, sizable secular urban elites with more conservative segments among the urban masses, in particular in their rural hinterlands.
Another feature that Egypt shares with Turkey is the preponderance of the role of the army in politics. Given its position at the locus of power, can the Egyptian Army play a constructive role in the transition to democracy or will it be compelled to slowly retrieve from the political scene as in Turkey? Can the emergence of the MB be a counter-balance to the influence of the army as a powerful institution? Although, it is difficult to predict a particular outcome at this juncture, one possibility that may be envisaged is for the army to follow a rational interest-based choice of accommodating itself with the conquest of power by the MB provided its special interests (economic in particular) are preserved and its autonomous status respected.
Assuredly, political Islam is today an inescapable reality. It is all the more solid that it is a modern ideological current deeply rooted in the indigenous culture and identity of the overwhelming majority of Middle Easterners. It is, also, a reflection of evolving local mores and traditions and a naturally growing endogenous political trend. It will be completely unrealistic to simply ignore its importance or overlook its genesis.
However, one can only hope it does not metamorphose into another form of authoritarian autocracy. In order to preclude that grim possibility it is important that all political forces vying for change unite their efforts for the sake of a common purpose, namely, an institutional change in which the rules of the game are clearly defined and collectively accepted by the various contenders for power. Before the institutional process of change is initiated a general consensus is therefore required. That is the best constitutional guarantee against the vagaries of personal ambition and natural temptations of partisan hegemony.
Arabs not only want change but a change for the better, i.e., the institution of a sound system of governance based on the democratic principles of power rotation, personal accountability and transparency in the administration of public institutions and state assets. If the rules of the game are in advance clearly defined and agreed upon within the framework of a general and free consensus, it does NOT matter so much who really gets elected. In the end what will uphold the system are the institutional mechanisms at core of its foundations not the political color of its cyclical popular expression.
In one of his campaign trails the sophisticated Nehru once tried to enlighten some illiterate Indian villagers in rural India by pedagogically quizzing them on the meaning of democracy. Thus he asked: “you know what democracy really means?”, then perceptively responded:” It simply means that if you don’t like my job performance you can fire whenever you want”. Therein lies the whole question of democracy!
– Mohamed El Mokhtar Sidi Haiba is a political analyst. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.