The Arab spring: A long march

The moderate Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood have won much ground but look far from comfortable in power – Published on The Economist, February 18, 2012.

… It’s hard to rule:

Liberal Islamists in Egypt, meanwhile, decry the group’s ideological sterility, rigid command structure and penchant for back-room politicking. More puritanical Islamists, such as the Salafists whose Nour Party came a surprisingly close second to the Ikhwan in Egypt’s elections, accuse the Brothers of diluting the Islamist agenda so as to soothe Western fears. Salafists also complain of being shunned by their ostensible Islamist cousins in favour of secular potential coalition partners.  

In other words, the Egyptian Brotherhood is finding that proximity to power carries a heavy tax. They are not alone. Nearly everywhere that Ikhwan-related parties have left opposition politics and entered government they have faced similar headwinds. Within a few years of Sudan’s 1989 coup, General Omar Bashir, the strongman who remains in power to this day, had shunted aside his Brotherhood partners and jailed their leader. Palestinian pundits sniff that just when the Brotherhood is gaining power elsewhere, Hamas’s exiled leader, Khaled Meshal, signed a deal replacing Gaza’s government with one led by Fatah’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas. In Kuwait and Bahrain, the sole Gulf monarchies with active, albeit highly circumscribed parliaments, the Brothers have failed to corral fellow Islamists into a united front, and have lost out to rivals with either tribal or more strongly religious appeal. For similar reasons Ikhwan-style parties have made few new converts and little electoral progress in the messy politics of Algeria, Iraq and Yemen.

Anxiety over a Brotherhood-run Arab empire should be tempered too by a better understanding of how the organisation works. The Ikhwan have a tanzim alami, or global organisation, comprised of at least two representatives from each of many Muslim communities across the world. Its nominal leader is Egypt’s Supreme Guide; by tradition lesser representatives kiss his right hand. Some wishfully liken the tanzim to America’s Congress, hoping that it could yet provide an institutional umbrella for a closer confederation of Arab states.

But the global Brotherhood wields little real authority. Far from applying a unified blueprint, executive offices in each country operate their own institutions with separate funding mechanisms. “The people of Mecca know their own people,” says Mahmoud Musleh, a Hamas parliamentarian in Ramallah. “Egypt cannot interfere in Palestinian affairs.” The head of Tunisia’s Brotherhood-linked Nahda Party, Rachid Ghannouchi, says he will tolerate both alcohol and bikinis in his country, and his government continues to license prostitution. The Libyan chapter next door vows to continue Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s bans on all three … //

… The vaunted Turkish model:

Still the Brotherhood stands out as a movement of institutions, not a figleaf for megalomaniacs. Its local chapters run internal elections and rotate their leaders. These men (and a few women) have generally proven pragmatic politicians, skilful at cutting deals when it helps them muster influence. They have sidled up to Egypt’s junta and offered to serve in King Abdullah of Jordan’s government, with or without elections. Across the Arab world they have professed a commitment to Turkish-style democracy, civic freedoms and free markets. To prove their belief in pluralism, Brotherhood leaders attended the most recent Christmas celebrations in Cairo’s Coptic cathedral. Leaders advertise their gender sensitivity by noting that nearly a quarter of Tunisia’s new parliamentarians are women, of whom 80% stood on Islamist lists. Mr Meshal recently promised a delegation of Palestinian liberals that he would add a woman for the first time to his nine-man politburo.

Besides, for all the Brotherhood’s shortcomings, the region could have many worse governments. In spite of Hamas’s record of terror tactics in Gaza, it has unquestionably managed the unruly Palestinian coastal strip far better than its secular predecessor Fatah. Its forces are more disciplined, the streets safer and the bureaucrats more efficient and less nepotistic. What corruption there is runs along institutional rather than blood lines. The Brotherhood’s members are largely lay professionals, not clergymen, and instinctively shrink from handing clerics too much power. As for imposing sharia law, it is telling that Yousef Qaradawi, the Al Jazeera channel pundit who is the Brotherhood’s preferred religious authority, recently opined that the application of God’s law in Egypt needed a five year reprieve. Alas five years after taking control of Gaza, Hamas has mostly preserved existing structures and laws, with minor tweaks. Now that Israel’s siege has relaxed and Hamas feels less threatened, its social controls have eased too. Though the interior minister has formally banned the mingling of genders and women smoking water-pipes in public, the new beach front resorts he has helped build sport both.

Across the region the Brotherhood has worked hard, through years of painstaking social work and uphill political battles, to enter the corridors of power. “It was like a stake tethering a water buffalo,” recounts one of the Ikhwan’s new parliamentarians in Egypt, who like many of his colleagues suffered jail and exile under the previous regime. “The government kept hammering it into the ground but we just kept on digging it out.” Such patient dedication bodes well for the new rulers’ ability to address the deep social and economic maladies afflicting most Arab countries. The Brotherhood’s rise through the ballot box and civil action marks a hope that Islamism’s reform-minded mainstream might yet prevail over the impetuous and increasingly abortive rush to arms that has characterised revolutionary Islamist groups, from the assassination of Egypt’s leader Anwar Sadat in 1981 to al-Qaeda today.
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