|WILL THE TRIUMPH OF THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD GROUPS LAST?|
By: Joseph Puder
Few western politicians or academics anticipated the Arab Spring and the sweeping victories of the Muslim Brotherhood groups in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. And, in Morocco, a recent poll showed that more than 82% of its citizens expressed confidence in the newly appointed Islamist Prime Minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, and his ability to run the government. In Syria the odds are that the most likely successor to the Ba’athist regime of Bashar Assad will be the Muslim Brotherhood. Given the failures of these secular dictatorships, conditions were ripe for the Muslim Brotherhood to take the central stage in the Arab world.
In 1954, following the attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) to assassinate President Abdul Nasser of Egypt, their actions were clamped down on and members were subjected to severe repression. In 1966 Sayyid Qutb, the spiritual leader of the MB was hanged by the Egyptian authorities. Presidents Sadat and Mubarak did not ease up on the repression; rather, thousands of Islamists and jihadist activists were thrown into prison and they upheld the Egyptian constitution which forbade religious parties from participating in elections, or become politically active.
As the 2005 elections in Egypt approached the Bush administration pressured Mubarak to allow the MB to run as a party. During that election the MB garnered 19% of the vote, and 88 MB representatives were elected to the People’s Assembly (the lower house in the Egyptian Parliament). At the same time, Ayman Nour, Member of Parliament and popular leader of the “liberal” opposition party, Al-Ghad (Tomorrow), was arrested and ultimately sentenced to five years imprisonment. In the 2010 elections however, the MB failed to gain any representation in the People’s Assembly. Protests erupted throughout Egypt and, Reuters reported that, “Opposition and independent monitors said the elections were fraught with ballot stuffing, voter intimidation and other abuses.”
The tactics used by the Mubarak regime and the talk about Mubarak’s son Gamal succeeding him, gained the MB a great deal of public sympathy and support. Ironically, now that the MB controls the Egyptian parliament, they seem to support the repression of pro-democracy activists. The MB supported the military regime arrest and trial of 27 pro-democracy activists among them Americans. MB leaders praised the officials carrying out the crackdown and said it “supported their nationalist position.” The MB website stated that it “rejects all forms of pressure the US is exerting,” and that “the Egyptian people will not tolerate any officials if they decide to succumb to the pressure or cover up the accusations or interfere in the business of the judiciary.”
In Syria, much as in Egypt, the MB was repressed by the secular Ba’athists and Syria’s Alawite President Hafez Assad. In 1963 a military coup brought the Ba’athists to power and with their ascendency came drastic curtailment of political freedom. In 1964 the Ba’athist regime outlawed the MB. The MB organized mass demonstrations and strikes throughout Syria shortly thereafter. It was, however, Hafez Assad, who after having seized power in 1970 took decisive action in February 1982 by destroying the predominantly Sunni Muslim city of Hama- a MB stronghold. According to the Syrian Human Rights Committee more than 25,000 people were murdered by the Syrian authorities
While the Syrian opposition commemorates the 30th anniversary of the Hama massacre this month, the current massacre continues. The Assad regime is bent on killing not only Sunni-Muslim Arabs but Kurds as well – many thousands of whom have lost their lives. Just as has happened in Egypt, this persecution of MB members by a secular dictatorship has elicited sympathy and support for their struggle.
Arabs find the Islamist parties in general, and the MB in particular, appealing for a variety of reasons including the fact that the Arab regimes have been defeated by Israel, which weakened their trust in the ability of secular regimes to win wars against Israel. And, Arabs are inspired by the 7th century Arab victories and conquests under the flag of Islam, which resulted in the subjugation and forced conversion to Islam of huge swaths of humanity from North Africa to China and the Caucuses.
Poverty, backwardness, and a low standard of living in most of the Arab world have prevented millions of young, educated Arabs from entering the labor market. It has been particularly acute in Egypt, where Nasser opened up the universities to the Fellahin (peasants) and where hundreds of thousands flooded the universities but were unable to find jobs. They subsequently filled the ranks of the MB or, alternatively, emigrated to the Arab Gulf states or the West. The inability of these young people to acquire a job, and thus marry and raise a family, turned them away from the secular dictatorship. For the downtrodden poor the slogan “Islam is the solution” made sense.
The MB exploited the poverty and lack of employment to garner support. They distributed food to the poor in the mosques following Friday prayers, and they have been the first to provide humanitarian help to villagers following a flood, fire, or other disasters; whereas government help was not forthcoming.
Unlike some of the secular parties in the Arab world, the MB has been in existence for 84-years (founded in 1928). They are well organized, well institutionalized and well-funded - by wealthy Islamists in the oil rich Gulf States.
In Egypt, where the MB was forbidden to enter the political arena, they have wisely used their energy to dominate the trade unions since the 1970’s. The MB avoided using violence, which they had previously exercised and, on the eve of the 2011 elections, they amended their 2007 Islamist platform - dropping negative references to Coptic Christians and women. They went even further by deleting the paragraph that called on foreign tourists to respect the laws of Islam. And, they pressed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to expedite the date for the parliamentary elections, taking advantage of the fact that they had a strong infrastructure and were well prepared, while the liberal youth – who carried out the revolution – but were not organized, were left out in the cold. The MB piggybacked on the revolutionaries who opted for a secular democracy.
To present a more acceptable image to secular Egyptians and the world outside, the MB adopted the Turkish model and named their parliamentary list the Freedom and Justice Party. In Morocco the Islamist party of the new Prime Minister did the same, naming their party the Justice and Development Party.
It is quite likely that once the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia gain confidence and entrench themselves in power as Turkey’s PM Erdogan Justice and Development (AK) party did, they will abandon all pretense of moderation, and become more like their Gaza affiliate, Hamas - a jihadist Islamist party that frowns upon observing the democratic process.
The secular and nationalist movements in multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies such as Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria needed a universal secular ideology to unify their respective countries. They promised their people freedom, equality, and unity, but none of these promises were realized. The Muslim Brotherhood groups have successfully won elections in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, and are likely to win in a free elections in Syria; and have substituted the same secular slogans with religious ones: social justice has replaced socialism, instead of Arab unity an Islamic Caliphate, and a Shura Council for democracy. The problems facing the Islamists are however the same: poverty, unemployment, and economic stagnation
As my friend, Egyptian-born Dr. Tawfik Hamid put it in his January 2, 2012 blog titled Will Egypt Face an Anti-Islamist Revolution?, “Failure of the Islamic experiment in Egypt (to deliver on economic betterment) can be the biggest setback to the Islamism phenomenon throughout the world as the Egyptian Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt are the orchestrators of the so-called 'Islamic revival' all over the world.
In brief, the overwhelming victory of the Islamists in the recent elections in Egypt may not be the ultimate finale for Egypt and it is likely that if the Islamists applied Sharia rules, this will set the stage for a powerful revolt or a revolution against them.”