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Monday, 7 February 2011

The Changing Middle East and Islamism

By Filippo Dionigi

The liberation movement, which initiated in Tunisia and rapidly reached Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and Yemen in the last weeks, caught these Arab regimes and the rest of the world unprepared despite the plethora of studies, think tanks and intelligence institutions monitoring the region.

Islamism is probably the main question mark. It raises the concern (for some a nightmare) of an Islamist Middle East, inimical to western countries and as illiberal and authoritarian as the regimes against which the Arabs are peacefully protesting these days.

But the fear of an Islamist-led Middle East is not completely justified. There are some aspects which could inform a more open-minded Western policy towards the inclusion of Islamism in the Middle Eastern political process. Aspects which are either missed by current academic scholarship, distorted by portrayals in the media or simply ones which Western policy-makers refuse to take into consideration.

Islamism is not Alone

The protests in all these Arab countries do not have an ideological label with which they can be easily identified. One key term in the protests was that of ghadab (anger), which cannot be linked to any religious or ideological affiliation. This does not mean that Islamist movements did not play a role in the mobilization. Quite the contrary: Mosques were gathering and starting points for many of the rallies, Fridays were key days in the protests, and prayers were observed by the protesters. The Muslim Brotherhood was outspoken in endorsing the protests despite the fact that some of its leading members were arrested by the regime.

This could be a strategy of the Muslim Brothers and the rest of the opposition who know very well that protests with a clear Islamist stance would have immediately been suffocated. Simultaneously although the Islamist constituency is certainly sizeable one wonders whether an exclusively Islamist call to action would have had the mobilizing capacity and effect that we are currently witnessing. This could be an indicator of the fact that Islamists are aware of their future inability to achieve major changes in their regimes if not relying also on a broader popular support basis.

Tunisia for example is a state where secularism is fairly robust coming from the strong French influence in the country and the decades of hard-line secularist policies; examples include the ban on the hijab issued by Bourguiba’s regime. The mobilization there has seen syndicates, educated youth and a frustrated middle class at the forefront of the protests. This combined with the fact that al-Nahda represents one of the most progressive and democratic forms of Islamism in the region are rather reassuring facts justifying the belief in a process that can be both inclusive of Islamist movements and not necessarily drifting towards another age of authoritarianism. Furthermore, Tunisia has an army that, contrarily to the police, is particularly well reputed by its people and assumes the role of guarantor which allows us to trace an analogy with the Turkish case.

All that Glitters is not Gold for Islamists

In addition to this it has been observed that Islamist movements are quite prudent in running for public offices. If there will be free and fair elections Islamist parties may decide to assume a political profile that is not as prominent as it is expected. Governing a state that is internationally isolated, economically unstable, foreign aid dependent, plagued by corruption and then incapable of delivering the ambitious promises of the Islamist agenda would be the quickest and surest way to loose the popular support on which these movements rely. The Middle East has a respectable record in throwing ideologies in the garbage bin of history and Islamists may be careful in avoiding that end. At least in the initial phase, rather than jumping on any vacant seat Islamists could take part in national unity governments or broader coalitions inevitably assuming more temperate stances.

No Alternatives

If the pattern is that of an orderly transition towards democratic and liberal institutions this cannot happen with the exclusion of Islamist parties. Although this may bring into power parties who hold a harsh and critical stance against western foreign policies, allowing the democratic process to take its natural form may have the effect of soothing such critical positions. In addition to this, apart from the popularity these movements enjoy, it is hard to implement any reform or change in the region without reference to the cultural and religious background that Islamists claim to represent. It is no coincidence that almost all the constitutions and regional human rights documents in the region contain references to Islam and the shari‘a. Although Islamist movements put forward an interpretation of these principles that in certain respects contradict liberal ethics, their political identity is far from fixed. Most of them claim a commitment to democracy and a degree of tolerance towards views different from those of Islamism which may be enough to guarantee a degree of political pluralism. Participation in the political process as well as sensible international engagement may bring about an equilibrium between Islamist demands and Western principles of democracy and human rights. Although inclusion does not necessarily entail moderation, the way in which these protests unfolded demonstrated a certain restraint and distance kept from the more radical instances of Islamism. This situation could prove to be more of an opportunity than an actual risk.

There certainly is an amount of gambling in this reasoning, but it may very well be the last chance for prospects of success.

Filippo Dionigi is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the LSE.

Shifting Sands is the blog of the Middle East International Affairs Programme at LSE IDEAS, analysing current events in the Middle East and contributing to the ongoing deliberations over policy prescriptions.

Silvia L. Peneva, Editor

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