Their way cleared by a popular revolt, Islamists take power in the Arab world

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Niccolo and Donkey
Their way cleared by a popular revolt, Islamists take power in the Arab world

The Globe and Mail

Patrick Martin

December 9, 2011

The refreshing Arab Spring is giving way to a stormy Islamist Winter.

This week, Islamist candidates in Egypt won the majority of parliamentary seats, and it now appears certain that Egypt’s first democratically elected parliament in six decades will have a substantial Islamist majority.

In November, Moroccans elected an Islamist government; in October it was Tunisia that did the same. Supporters of that new Tunisian government didn’t wait long before demanding social change: They began by putting pressure on universities to segregate men and women.


And Libya’s transitional government, chosen to carry the country forward from its recent revolution, revealed its true colours when the government leader made a point of declaring that the country’s law against polygamy is “contrary to sharia ” and will be done away with.

What happened to the liberal uprising that everyone in the West seemed to be cheering on? Instead of the bloggers and Facebook revolutionaries people came to support, Islamist politicians are taking charge throughout the Arab world.

“The Western narrative never matched the reality on the ground,” says Alastair Crooke, one of the few people to correctly predict a strong showing by hardline Islamists in Egypt’s election and the dominance of Sunni Islamists throughout the region.

“What we’re witnessing is a paradigm change in this part of the world,” said Mr. Crooke, a former agent for Britain’s MI6 spy agency and author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution . “The outcome is very different from what many expected, and a whole lot more dangerous.”

“The strength of the Salafists was a surprise,” an experienced Western diplomat acknowledged, referring to the fundamentalist Islamic adherents. “The Gulf States have been extremely successful in promoting their particular views among [Egyptian and other] expats who take the views home with them.”

As well, Qatar, whose leadership is closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, played a particularly active role in Libya. And Saudis are believed to be helping fund Salafi activities in Egypt that have helped build popular support.

“Salafists are not democrats, and they’re not friends of Israel, of Iran, the West, or moderate Muslims,” he said. “All have reason for concern.”

How did people not see this coming?

“They turned a blind eye to it,” Mr. Crooke said, “preferring to think it was all about kicking Gadhafi’s ass, or kicking Assad’s ass,” a reference to the late former leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, and the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Everyone thought that was great,” he said, “just like they thought it was great that the mujahedeen were kicking Soviet ass in Afghanistan.”

“When all the time, the Islamists were organizing.”


What next? The final two rounds of parliamentary elections are to take place in rural areas and likely will elect even a higher proportion of Islamists. The army, however, hasn’t waited for those votes to take place before appointing on Thursday a special 30-person council that will oversee the selection of a constitutional assembly, a task that was supposed to be the work of the parliament being elected. The action by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, intended to reassure Christians and secular Muslims, puts the entire democratic experiment in jeopardy.

The concern Christians and secular Muslims are worried that a majority Islamist parliament could push Egypt into Islamic statehood. They fear sharia law would remove many freedoms of dress, behaviour and expression. As a result, many may start to emigrate if they feel their lifestyle or status is threatened. Foreign investment will be hard to come by and foreign reserves will decline precipitously. Israel, too, is increasingly worried. It was bad enough to lose an ally in former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Israelis say, but to have him replaced by an Islamist government is their worst nightmare. While even an Islamist regime would have no interest in simply tearing up Egypt’s treaty with Israel, it would no longer be business as usual between the countries, and Israel will be compelled to adjust its military preparedness to face possible attacks from the south.


What next? Hamas, an Islamist organization, already controls the Gaza Strip and has a considerable following in the West Bank. At the same time, Salafists, numbering only a few thousand, have begun to push for Hamas in Gaza to take more extreme positions, both against Israel and in enforcing sharia law. Both Hamas and the Salafists are likely to grow as a result of the success of related groups in Egypt. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist parties will serve both as an inspiration to Palestinians and provide hands-on support to the movements in the Palestinian territories. Hamas, in particular, will attract greater popular support and will receive overt political assistance from a new Egyptian government.

The concern “The rise of Hamas to power in the Palestinian Authority is only a matter of time,” says Guy Bechor, head of the Middle East department at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “Either by means of elections … or by violence.” With Egypt as Hamas’s guardian, no longer will Israel be able to carry out large-scale attacks as it did in 2008-09. This may explain why Israel appears to have upped the number of military attacks it has carried out this week against factions in Gaza.


What next? Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood will gain considerable popular support as a result of the regional Islamist momentum. It will almost certainly push for greater democratic freedoms in the moderate monarchy of King Abdullah II.

The concern King Abdullah is a crucial ally of Israel and host to a large Palestinian refugee population. A surge in support for the Islamists could lead to tensions with Israel and alienate the monarchy’s loyal following among Jordanians. The result could be civil conflict, an end to the country’s treaty with Israel, or both.


What next? Forces for and against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are beginning to break along sectarian lines. Islamists affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization, are prominent among the opposition now threatening Mr. al-Assad’s hold on power. Mr. al-Assad is from the minority Alawite sect, linked to Shia Islam and supported by Shia Iran. The Syrian opposition is now being aided by the predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab League and by Turkey, a Sunni Muslim country. Syria’s two main Arab neighbours, Iraq and Lebanon, declined to go along with the recent Arab League initiative and neither is imposing sanctions on Syria. Both Lebanon and Iraq are governed by Shia-dominated governments.

The concern Forces in both Lebanon and Iraq do not want to see the end of Mr. al-Assad and either, or both, could come to his military assistance. Should he be toppled, or come close to being toppled, the situation “will end with civil war, and this civil war will lead to [sectarian]alliances in the region,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said last weekend. “ “Because we are a country that suffered from the civil war of a sectarian background, we fear for the future of Syria and the whole region.”
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