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The dilemma facing Islamists in the Arab world

The dilemma facing Islamists in the Arab world

Khairat al-Shater announced last week he was running for president under the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

This is a translation from the Portuguese of my column that appeared in the April 6, 2012, edition of O Globo:


From amid the chaos of the Arab Spring uprisings for over a year now, the Islamists have been emerging victorious in more than one Arab country. From Morocco to Tunisia, and now Egypt, they have won a majority of parliamentary seats in democratic and free elections. But it is at this moment of glory they are also facing an almost existential dilemma: To be conservative and rigid in their Islam, or must they be pragmatic and build alliances with other non-Islamist parties?

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is perhaps the Islamist group that feels this challenge the most. Founded in 1928, the group was banned for the first time in 1948, when it had an estimated half a million members. In 1954 it was banned again by the nationalist President Gamal Abdul Nasser, and for decades after its members were brutally suppressed by the state, arrested and tortured. Islamists of the entire Arab world has also seen with alarm the brutal killing of up to 100,000 people in Algeria after the Islamists won a majority of seats in the first round of parliamentary elections in 1991 and the subsequent cancellation of the results by the Algerian military, which could not accept the victory of the Islamists.

The case of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip since June 2007, also causes doubts in the minds of the Islamists on how much success an Islamist government an achieve in the region due to strong resistance against this type of ideology by Israel and the West. Formed as a branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1987, Hamas has always been a fundamentalist group of conservative thought and totally against any kind of peace with Israel. This has made life very difficult for Hamas, with economic and political embargoes against the group by the United States and the European Union who have classified the group as a terrorist. In contrast, the West Bank is ruled by Fatah, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has always been secular and more willing to negotiate with the Israelis and Americans. You can see that despite the many restrictions imposed by Israel in the West Bank, and numerous Jewish settlements, the area is much calmer than the Gaza Strip, and therefore its Palestinian population suffers less than their relatives in Gaza.

The model of Turkey, which has been a secular republic since 1923, but has had an Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party, since 2002, is often cited as a good example of how to unite moderate Islam with democracy. But the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, acted brutally against the Islamists, banning the veil for women in his attempt to modernize Turkey at any cost, something that never happened in an Arab country.

The professor of international relations at Tufts University in the US, Malik Mufti, recently wrote a paper on how to transform Syria into a democracy in which the nationalist-secular camp is balanced with the Islamists. For this, he says it would take some sort of agreement between the secular and Islamist forces, as happened in Turkey, with all strongly accepting a diverse and pluralistic political system, holding the people as the source of political authority, and the embracement of democratic political parties and regular elections.

I see this limits to this endeavor because the conditions under which democracy grew in Turkey were due to circumstances specific to that country. Turkey is a NATO member since 1952, made a member so as to be a bulwark against the expansion of Soviet influence in the Middle East during the Cold War. This was crucial for modernizing, training and professionalizing the Turkish armed forces, which are the second largest force in NATO after the United States. Despite having participated in at least four coups against governments that the military thought were straying from the democratic and secular path, Mufti thinks that the Turkish military will ultimately not derail democracy in Turkey.

The problem I see in applying this concept in Egypt is that its armed forces, which are currently in power through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, are unfortunately not as professional as the Turks, and do not have the confidence of a good part of the electorate, who thinks they want to stay on in power behind the scenes after a new president is elected in May.

Some members of the Brotherhood in Egypt have admitted being afraid of the dangers that can come with power. They do not want to provoke an unnecessary war with Israel or the United States, fully aware that a fight with one of these powers could cause a huge setback against the Islamists. The US and Israel, for their part, are not stupid, and seeing the size of the popular support that Islamists have garnered across he Arab world, are trying to befriend them. It remains to be seen how each side will play their cards.