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Islamists and Democracy in the Middle East

Municipal and parliamentary elections in recent months across the Middle East have given Islamic parties significant political gains and pushed conservative, Islamist forces to the forefront.

Across the Middle East, democracy has served Islamic religious parties well, with many of them promising political and socio-economic change in their electoral campaigns and making impressive gains in area parliaments.

Last December’s Egyptian parliamentary elections gave the banned Muslim Brotherhood, whose members ran as independents, 87 out of the 454 seats in the People’s Assembly. And in January’s Palestinian parliamentary elections, the group Hamas won 74 out of 132 and control of the government.

Amr Hamzawi of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington says Islamists have worked to expand their popular base.

“They have managed in the last couple of years to use religious symbolism and religious rhetoric to address political and socio-economic issues within an Islamic frame of reference and an attractive religious setting, which resonates with Arab majorities. Arab majorities know that governments can solve their socio-economic problems. But the belief in governments and state institutions, which we did have in the region in the 1950s, ’60s and up to the 1980s, is changing," says Hamzawi.

Most observers agree that the failure of the region’s governments to fulfill the needs of their people has contributed to the popularity of Islamists at the polls.

Benefitting From the Status Quo

Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East analyst at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, says this has helped make Islamists the most powerful political force in the Arab world.

“In the eyes of majorities of Arabs, secular governments in Egypt, in Syria, in Algeria, in Morocco, in Iraq, failed to deliver the social and economic goods. They failed to protect the homeland. That is how the populations in those countries perceive the existing order,” says Gerges.

In contrast, Islamists have built social, educational and health care services to help the needy in poor areas overlooked by governments.

Moreover, some analysts say Middle Eastern governments have inadvertently encouraged Islamists by limiting secular political parties while giving religious parties a free hand.

Amr Hamzawi of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says secular parties have had little chance to organize constituencies or participate in elections. “This was in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. And where they participated, like in Egypt, Yemen or other places, their participation was highly limited. Religious actors, however, were able to operate using the mosques, the schools and charity organizations. So they created social trust, social capital, which can be easily translated into political capital in moments of upheaval or when elections take place,” says Hamzawi.

Consequently, elections held in the Palestinian territories and Egypt, for instance, offered voters few choices.

Researcher Judy Barsalou of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington says the Egyptian political system, for example, restricted the participation of both Islamic and secular parties, ultimately hurting secular politicians the most.

“They are much less competitive than their Islamic alternatives. The Muslim Brotherhood is much more powerful than any of the secular parties currently operating in Egypt. So, in a restricted political space, it’s the Islamist parties, which have their own ways of organizing, that tend to become more popular just on their own terms.”

At the same time, conservative Islamists seeking to impose Islamic law have found themselves at odds with their governments in countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Over the years, they have been thrown in jail, expelled or killed in clashes with government forces.

A New Islamic Pragmatism?

Now, some experts argue that many Islamists have become more pragmatic and have forsaken their former goals of abolishing political systems in favor of religious states. Rather, they have learned to work the existing political order.

Some analysts worry about the true intentions of those elected and the direction the Middle East might take under their influence. Others, including Larry Diamond of the California-based Hoover Institution, are not convinced that Islamists will ultimately dominate the political landscape. He says gradual, calculated shifts toward democracy in the region will give religious parties stiff competition.

“If you have a period of time of real political opening where other options can form, begin to mobilize and organize parties, set up think tanks and newspapers, and begin to cultivate popular support and present their ideas on radio and T.V., then I don’t think it is inevitable that the Islamists will be the principle alternative. We could see a much more dispersed and pluralistic political terrain that will take time to merge,” says Diamond.

The West and Democracy in the Middle East

Some observers argue that the West, which continues to push for democracy in the Middle East, may not favor a sudden shift toward democracy that might favor conservative Islamists.

Judy Barsalou of the U.S. Institute of Peace points to the recent Palestinian elections as an example of the dilemma facing the West. She says, “It really is a test of what intentions the West has when it says that it wants to promote democracy in these societies. Do you open up the system immediately and let everyone compete for power on an equal basis? Or do you open up gradually? I think that, in the wake of the Palestinian elections, there’s going to be more reluctance to open up completely and allow complete, equal competition between these different forces.”

Most experts prefer a wait and see approach to judge Islamists by their deeds. But most observers also agree that the same democratic processes that put Islamists in power could be their downfall in the long run if they fail to deliver.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.