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Islamist Political Parties Gain in Middle East Elections

Recent elections in the Middle East indicate that Islamist parties are emerging as influential players in mainstream politics. Voters in Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian territories chose candidates from religious parties over secular politicians. Middle East analysts predict this trend will continue, if governments in the region gradually become more democratic.

The Bush administration and many other governments are convinced that a democratic transformation of the Middle East is critical to the security of the rest of the world.

Mr. Bush says, if freedom does not flourish in the region, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence.

The president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, Radwan Masmoudi, predicts change will happen quickly in Arab nations. "Democracy is coming to the Arab world and the Muslim world, whether we like it or not, with or without our support. I believe that these regimes, the current regimes and governments are too isolated, too discredited, and too corrupt to last much longer. My prediction is that we are going to see a lot of changes in the next five to 10 years in almost all of these regimes," he said.

During recent elections in the region, it has become clear that the most important opposition movements in many Arab countries are Islamic groups, which are organized and have larger constituencies than secular parties.

A recent study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace agreed, but expressed doubts about the groups' democratic credentials. In its words, it would be "much more reassuring" if the emerging political players in the Middle East were secular organizations.

But analysts say no ideology in the Arab world currently has the appeal of the Islamist message, which combines a religious model with a network of service organizations Muslim groups have setup in many countries.

Carrie Wickham is a political science professor at Emory University who focuses her research on the rise of Islamic activism in Egypt and other Arab states.

Wickham says Muslim groups support democracy because they know they can win elections and gain power. "The leaders of mainstream Islamist opposition groups are outspoken advocates of free and competitive elections, in large part, because they know that, with a mass base that is much larger and better organized than that of any rival opposition group, they would be the first to benefit from a genuine democratic opening, at least in the short term," he said.

Amr Hamzawy is an Egyptian political scientist, who is currently a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Hamzawy argues that a lack of trust between Arab governments, Muslim groups and secular political parties is slowing efforts to promote democracy. "There is a clear history of mistrust on all sides. Islamists mistrust regimes out of good reasons, repression. Islamists also mistrust non-Islamist opposition movements, liberal and leftists, because of the secular reluctance to stand up for Islamists' rights, political rights, in moments of repression, and this happened in different countries, in Algeria, Egypt and elsewhere," he said.

Hamzawy says, while Islamists are playing an important role, they are not strong enough to bring about major changes in autocratic governments. "If you take Arab politics seriously, as of today, Islamists are not able on their own, single-handedly, to press for democratic transition in the region. The regimes, the ruling establishments, remain the gatekeepers. Islamists can compete, contest their power, as they have broad constituencies, but they are not able to change or to press for democratic transitions single-handedly," he said.

Hamzawy says Islamic groups face two major challenges in the near future. He says, first, they need to learn how to build coalitions and broaden their platforms to reach out beyond their natural constituencies.

Hamzawy says Muslim political groups also need to settle internal differences in a democratic fashion, or risk splintering into multiple parties, a move that could diminish their efforts to bring about change.