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The failure of democracy under Islamism

The fall of autocratic regimes in the Arab world have led to the inevitable rise to power of Islamist groups who have had no real competition. These groups however are ill-equipped to tackle the economic, social and political problems that these countries face today.

It all started in Tunisia, and is ending in Tunisia: the Arab Spring turning into a bad winter. The young revolted while the old reaped the benefits. But what has actually gone wrong? The uncontrolled, unorganized young masses went in peaceful demonstrations challenging the well-established dictator. Their demands were simple: a better life, and a better future. Their demands never had a religious dimension. No one ever demanded a return to Sharia. On the contrary, the demands were secular and liberal in their nature. They demanded a real democracy, an end to corruption and a fair economic establishment.

Then Islamists suddenly popped up, taking over and harvesting the fruits of the Revolution. These unexpected developments sent shock waves all over the region. Who are the Islamists and what was their origin? To understand this, you need to grasp the consequences of the cultural differences that have existed between Europe and the Arab / Muslim countries and their impact on the practice of democracy.

A prelude to democracy

Michael Mandelbaum once explained the difference between Eastern Europe and the Arab countries: "there are two big differences between Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Many Eastern European countries had a recent liberal past to fall back on-after artificially imposed Soviet Communism was removed. And Eastern Europe also had a compelling model and magnet for free market democracy right next door: the European Union. Most of the Arab Muslim world has neither, so when the iron lid of autocracy comes off they fall back, not on liberalism, but Islamism, sectarianism, tribalism, or military rule."[1]

But, while I agree with Michael Mandelbaum's analysis, I believe he jumped over the most important factor. In western Europe liberalism prevailed centuries after the defeat of the church and the spread of the revolutionary ideas of Martin Luther (1483-1546), John Calvin (1509-1564) and others. That has not happened yet in the Muslim world. On the contrary, the liberal demonstrations of the young generations in search for dignity, justice and freedom took place at a time when Muslim religion in its fundamental version was not only the strongest prevailing ideology in society, but practically the only one. [2]

This has produced disequilibrium in the political order in such societies. Modernity, civil institutions, equality, liberal thinking, and women’s rights, are all alien to fundamental and traditional Islamic values and are categorically rejected. The political values of Islam under the principle of shura are contradictory with the values of liberal democracy and both ideologies cannot co-exist. What is required in Muslim countries is not the political reform process many have espoused, but rather a radical reform within religion itself.

Modern Islamism

After the First World War the political picture prevailing throughout the Middle East and the Muslim World was characterized by secular and nationalist political movements. The reaction to the defeat and disintegration of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War was not only visible in Turkey with Ataturk overtaking power and turning Turkey into a modern secular state, but also throughout the Ottoman colonies, especially the Arab Middle East where the trend to move away from the Islamic Caliphate was overriding. During the period of independence from classical colonialism, religion was nearly absent and played no part in such movements. This was valid not only for Muslim Middle East countries, but also for countries in both continents in Asia as well as Africa. Third world independent movements were guided by national political parties and strongly backed by the Eastern Block. Communism and different Marxist groups played central roles in the independence movements after the Second World War. Take a well-known example from the Middle East: Egypt under Jamal Abdul Nasser.

In 1952 a young army officer called Jamal Abdul Nasser managed to take power in Cairo after a successful military coup. The ideology adopted by Nasser was that of “Pan Arabism” strongly backed by a socialist agenda. Later his ideology was known as “Arab Socialism”. His message was addressed to all Arabs throughout the Middle East. He used the struggle against imperialism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as his central theme of focus and a main tool for spreading his propaganda.

During the 1950’s and the 1960’s Jamal Abdul Nasser and the ideology of Arab Socialism monopolized the political arena in the Middle East. Military takeovers took places in different Arab countries following the guidelines of Nasser. Iraq, Yemen, Syria , Sudan, Mauritania and Libya are good examples of that legacy. The same picture continued after the 6-Day War of 1967. The different Palestinian groups were either nationalist, like Fatah, or Marxist-oriented organizations.

This picture of national plus leftist groups dominated the Third-World Liberation spectrum. Rebel organizations in different countries also adopted one form of Marxism as their official ideology. A religious man had no place within such circumstances for he was considered to be backward, uneducated and was despised by the elite, and by the politically-motivated masses.

In the Third World Marxism became the modern stream of “scientific” thinking and it was the most popular expanding ideology. This phenomenon represented the main challenge to western Europe and the US during the post-Second World War Cold War.

I believe that both the US and western Europe encouraged religious centers and movements in both Asia and Africa as part of the imperatives of the Cold War. Religion was one of the main tools against the spread of Communism. It was under such circumstances that Grand Ayatollah Khomeini declared his revolt against the Shah of Iran [3] at the end of the 1970’s. This declaration marked the birth of modern Islamism.[4] The success of the Khomeini Revolution in Iran was followed by several attempts to 'export' the Revolution leading to the 8-year long Iraq-Iran war. Across the borders and into Afghanistan, the Soviet occupation was fighting fierce guerilla warfare with the Mujahedeen [5] The international balance of power faced serious disequilibrium in that area. Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamic Revolution received high levels of international publicity. Later political developments increased the attention to the Islamic Revolution such as the occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran [6]. All these developments gave great publicity to a Shiite version of Islam at a time when this sect represented less than 20% of the total Muslims worldwide, while the rest were Sunni Muslims.

The success of Shiite Muslims in Iran pushed to the limits Sunni Muslim traditional organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MBH) and led to the formation of new movements, especially the Sunni fundamentalist groups. Fierce competition between the Shiite and Sunni groups continued throughout this process. Regional conflicts further increased the formation and development of such groups as was seen during the Lebanese civil war, in Chechnya and the civil war in the Baltic caused by the dismantling of Socialist Yugoslavia. But the world had to wait until September 11, 2001 to witness the reply of Sunni Muslims to Grand Ayatollah Khomeini's Revolution of the late 1970’s.

Sunni Islamic groups and organizations were formed in all Arab countries and were banned in one way or another. The suppression of these well-organized groups during the late part of the twentieth century in countries suffering from high levels of corruption and political mismanagement provided some popularity for these groups. Islam is the Solution was the slogan of these groups that spread strongly throughout the poor classes of society. The general political atmosphere during the last decades of the twentieth century excluded the participation of Islamism, and prevented them from taking power, as happened in Algeria. This exclusion further strengthened such groups and increased their popularity. Islamism had to move underground and to wait until the arrival of the Arab Spring.

Role of the Conservative Arabs

During the demonstrations and in a hidden and unpublicized way, Qatar [7] managed to be part of the Arab Spring [8]. The Qatari Al-Jazeera Satellite TV paved the way. The significant financial support that came from Qatar to the well-organized Islamists guaranteed it a permanent seat in the newly evolving power centre. While the youth were engaged in bringing down the regime, the Islamists were planning to take full advantage of the outcomes of regime change.

To achieve that, they used the financial support that was coming from Qatar, exactly as Qatar had planned. Through such 'investments' Qatar is expanding its influence beyond its borders, and it is benefiting considerably from such developments[9]. From the other side, it is noted that the newly evolving system in Tunis was unaware of such developments. The Islamist Leader Rachid Ghannouchi dismissed any plans to participate in the coming elections as he landed in Tunis Airport coming from London. By saying that, he succeeded in distracting attention away from the Islamists and their plans in the upcoming elections. The legal system of the countries facing regime-change lacks important aspects of proper electoral systems. Proper legislation should be in-place before elections take place. Such legislation should include a Political Parties Law that governs the process of elections and specifies the sources of financial support. This” legal gap” in the system was fully utilized by both Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Thses developments produced adverse effects and consequences that have changed the course of direction of the Arab Spring. By doing that, Qatar managed to introduce its conservative Islamic political agenda that provides support to specific political groups in Tunis and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. The same applies to Saudi Arabia and its Al-Arabiya Satellite TV. The fundamentalists have increased their strength, making use of this huge financial support. This development will have serious consequences on the evolution of the Tunisian political system.

The success of the Islamists has alienated other segments in society that once played the leading role in the Arab Spring. These segments are representatives of the middle classes, and their role in society is vital for the success of the political process. The struggle between these two groups is very fierce. In Tunis, the strategy of the Islamists is to write the Constitution according to their agenda (Sharia) in order to ensure their continuation in monopolizing future elections. The middle classes and the young generations have shown great concern regarding the agenda of political Islam. Any introduction of Sharia shall represent a serious step backwards for society and further deterioration in living standards. Similar developments are taking place in Egypt. The Constitution Committee is dominated by Islamists.

For Tunisia what can political Islam achieve? The share of the service sector in the Tunisian economy is over 60% (2007), while the share of the industrial sector is around 25% and finally the share of the agricultural sector is just around 11%. Such figures should not be surprising in such a developing country that is located on the shores of the Mediterranean that suffers greatly from the absence of a fresh water source (river) and depends mainly on rain and high-cost underground water. These figures indicate the importance of tourism to the daily lives of the Tunisian population. Any interference by political Islam in the service sector will be catastrophic, and will aggravate the unemployment problem [10]. Now the aim of the Islamist Government of Tunisia is to pretend that everything in the country is back to normal and that tourism and foreign investment can return as it was before the Revolution. The agenda of political Islam provides no substnatial alternative vision or guidance in overcoming the daily challenges of unemployment, poverty and underdevelopment. Corruption is spreading as the fear from the state has vanished, and the ordinary man in the street has started to learn how to play the political game.

The election success of the Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere is not an indication of their popularity, but rather a result of a combination of factors. The most important are the Islamists' full mobilization, the significant financial support received from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the general low  public participation in the 2011 elections, the existence of high levels of illiteracy and poverty [11],and most important of all, corrupted capitalism [12]. All these factors combined explain why the Islamists won the majority of the seats [13]. All the supporters of the Islamists participated 100% in the elections while the secular parties had no influence over their supporters. Democracy presumes the existence of political and social awareness and not widespread illiteracy and ignorance. Yet in Egypt, for example, the poor and illiterate represent around 40% of the population. What kind of free elections can be held under such circumstances? 

The core problem leading to what is known as the Arab Spring in Tunis was the situation produced by the Structural Adjustment process that started in 1986 under the pressure of the World Bank. In many cases the application of specific criteria taken from highly industrialized countries and applied to developing countries like Tunisia (and Egypt) leads to a breaking down of the social fabric and disequilibrium in the political system. In order to move towards a 'free market', the government started dismantling the large public sector through a process well-known as 'privatization'. In developing countries and due to existing social institutions (like nepotism) and prevailing cultures (which are absent in Industrialized countries) , the privatization process leads to few hands owning the majority of the sectors sold off in this way. Usually the new owners are members of the ruling family and other relatives of the government.  In Tunis the family of Ben Ali, and the close relatives of his wife, became the new owners of the most important newly-privatized companies. Corruption became “open” and overall. This development represented a serious setback to government efforts in combating poverty and reducing unemployment as the move away from the public sector aggravated the unemployment problem significantly. Corruption and unemployment [14] were the main factors behind the popular uprising that produced the Arab Spring in both Tunisia and Egypt and also the main factors behind the political upheavals in Libya and Yemen.

Today the Islamists after forming the Government in Tunisia and Egypt are facing the real test. They face real and serious economic issues as well as the social and political consequences of enacting religious-oriented laws in a country that enjoyed secular relationships for over a century.  The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example, find themselves in a trap. The Egyptian-Israeli Treaty, foreign investment, unemployment, freedom of speech and religion and so many other real economic, political, and social issues are awaiting clear answers. If the 'status quo' continues, the Muslim Brotherhood using Egypt’s national interests as a scapegoat, then the Egyptian Revolution that led to the fall of Mubarak’s regime will have been reduced to nought.

[1] Islamism is the ideology of Political Islam, and the Principle of SHURA sets the political order of governance in a Muslim country.

[2] See Friedman, Thomas, L., "There be dragons", International Herald Tribune, 1.03.2012, p.7.

[3] Under dictators, religion soon represents the country’s only ideology, even in non-Muslim countries.

[4] As a result of the end of the Cold War, the Khomeini regime in Iran lost the grounds for its survival; the regime is simply no longer needed. The US containment policies and isolation imposed on Iran will ultimately make Iran a regional superpower. The regime uses the US 'threat' to strengthen its grip internally, and to devote further resources to the military industries. It is time for the US to adopt a policy change towards Iran. A positive dialogue will weaken the extremist and strengthen the moderates. This policy change will enable the US to have a developing influence and a stronger leverage.

[5] Sayed Qutub explicitly rejected western type democracy, considering it alien to Muslim Rule. A Muslim political order calls only for the Caliphate to consult some of the ruled as defined in the principle of Shura.

[6] See Yousif, S., Apartheid Under the Mandate of Islam, New English Review, July 2011.

[7] See Yousif, S., The Downfall of Political Islam, New English Review, Dec 2010.

[8] Paradoxically, Qatar and Al-Jazeera Satellite TV pushes strongly for political reforms in specific Arab countries, while Qatar itself is a non-democratic country and should be with Saudi Arabia the first to adopt such reforms.

[9] This was very clear in Libya. Through the interference of Qatar, the pro-Qatar Islamists managed to take over the rebel forces, especially when the General Commander was assassinated. General Abdul Fattah Younis was assassinated by pro-Qatar armed groups to clear the way for the Islamists to take full control of the rebel forces. It is also of importance to note that many of the leading Islamist figures controlling the Libyan rebel forces have participated on the side of Al-Qaeda in Iraq before moving to Libya. In both cases (Iraq and Libya) Qatar supported the insurgency.

[10] As soon as the civil war in Libya was over, a Qatar-Libyan Oil Company was established. Also, the role of Qatar in supporting the Eritrean dictator is downgraded in the media although this dictator is the main supporter of the Al-Shabab movement in Somalia.

[11] Political Islam has already spread its politics in Tunisia, where the new Islamist Cultural Minister has introduced his own understanding of arts and entertainment.

[12] The poor and the illiterate hold the belief that the Islamists will save them from their misery.

[13] The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in developing countries . These policy changes are conditions for getting new loans from such financial institutions. These conditions are implemented to ensure that the money lent will be spent in accordance with the overall goals of the loan. Through the implementation of the afore-mentioned conditions, Structural Adjustment Programs generally implement 'free market' programs and policy.

[14] In Tunis the poorer classes suffered greatly from unemployment, whereas corruption was directed at the middle classes. Without the support of the middle classes the uprising of December 2010 would have had no chance of winning.

About the author
Samir Yousif is a graduate of the London School of Economics (1976) and has worked in different sectors in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, and in Europe. He worked as a professor in economics (1986-1994) at the University of al-Qadisiyah (Iraq), and at the University of Al-Fateh (1994-1996) in Tripoli, Libya. He is a Norwegian citizen, at the present living in the city of Stavanger, Norway.
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