Can Islamist parties and democracy mix?

Posted: June 04, 2012

DOHA, Qatar — As the Arab Spring morphs into a hot Arab summer, activists around the region are debating whether Islamist parties and democracy can mix.

Given the triumph of religious parties in parliamentary elections in Tunisia and Egypt, and the lead roles taken by Islamists in Libya, Yemen, and the Syrian opposition, Arab human rights activists have become increasingly nervous that their revolution will be hijacked.

Nowhere is that debate more intense than in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate is one of two finalists in presidential elections set for June 15 and 16. The Brotherhood already won 47 percent of the parliamentary seats in November; its success stems from its tight organization and loyal core of supporters.

Yet it is far too soon to assume that the new Arab politics is destined to be shaped only by religious parties. Already, in the year since the Arab revolts began, the pushback to religious domination of politics has begun.

At the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, a project of the Brookings Institution and the government of Qatar, the tensions between religion and politics were a hot topic.

One revealing session featured the leader of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, Rashid Ghannouchi. He described why, after his party’s victory, it chose not to seek revision of Article I of Tunisia’s constitution — a change that would have made sharia law the source of the country’s legal code.

Ennahda decided to accept the Article I language stating that Tunisia’s religion is Islam. Its leaders recognized that many Tunisians differ with Ennahda over referencing sharia and fear its misuse. So the party opted for consensus. Instead of pushing for Islamization, it agreed to implement Islamic values by developing a modern state.

"We fought for freedom, not sharia law," Ghannouchi told the Tunisian press.

What Ghannouchi grasps is this: Arab populations may be traditionally religious, but their prime concerns are honest governance, more jobs, and a better standard of living — not sharia. (Recent polls have shown this to be true in Egypt.) He rightly notes: "We are in dire need to fight corruption." That is the basis on which Ennahda will be judged.

Of course, Tunisia has a more European orientation and a better-educated population than Egypt. Neila Charchour Hachicha, a cofounder of Tunisia’s secular Afek Tounes party, told me in Doha, "Ennahda is completely different from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Ennahda understands republican values."

Yet, even if Tunisia is unique, Ennahda provides an Arab model of Islamist openness that others in the region can reference, and one that stands in sharp contrast to developments in Egypt.

In Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood’s plunge into electoral politics, after decades underground, has exposed it to the glare of public scrutiny and criticism.

The Brotherhood faces intense skepticism from distinguished Egyptian liberals like Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a courageous fighter for democracy who spent two years in prison under Hosni Mubarak’s regime. "Are the Muslim Brothers worshipping themselves more than God and nation?" he demanded in a recent article in the journal of his Ibn Khaldun Center. His point: The Brotherhood was more concerned about cementing its own power than working for Egypt.

Ibrahim worries that the Brotherhood seeks to dominate all institutions of power. He told me that its closed and hierarchical organization, which imposes strict loyalty to the leader, is not compatible with the freedoms that are so essential to the revolution.

Then he related a fascinating story. Jamal al-Banna, brother of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, told Ibrahim he had refused to join the organization because he felt that, with its tight control of its cadres, "the Brotherhood was no different from the Russian Communist Party led by Vladimir Lenin."

During 10 days in Cairo, I heard similar concerns from Egyptians who had quit senior positions in the Brotherhood, as well as from human rights campaigners. Their fear: If the Brotherhood controls the parliament and executive, it will work to take control of the bureaucracy and penetrate the police and intelligence agencies, while making deals with the military — all to ensure its lasting hold on power.

In working-class neighborhoods, former Brotherhood supporters told me they were upset that the organization had broken its pledge not to run a candidate for president. In the coming days, the Brotherhood will have to convince a large segment of Egyptians that electing Mohamed Morsi president will not enshrine a new, religious dictatorship.

The young Egyptians who made the Tahrir Square revolution are torn: They must choose between Morsi or Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister under the Mubarak regime, whom they despise. (The non-Islamists split their vote among three other candidates, thereby permitting Morsi and Shafiq to top the presidential list.)

Some liberal or leftist groups will try to exhort pledges of greater openness from Morsi; others will not vote. Despite Shafik’s hostility toward the revolution, he could win — unless the Brotherhood changes tack.

What struck me on this trip is that Arabs who made the revolution are far more aware of the risks posed by Islamist parties than were the naive revolutionaries who ushered Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini into power in Iran in 1979. Even among the devout, there is an understanding that unchecked pursuit of power can corrupt religion. There is public resistance to efforts by any party to monopolize power.

It’s doubtful the Muslim Brotherhood can reform itself, but Egyptians will push back if it doesn’t. "We have reached a point where the Brothers need to establish their democratic credentials," says Hossam Bahgat, a leading Egyptian human rights activist.

This is the new Egypt speaking. Things are not as they were.

E-mail Trudy Rubin at trubin@phillynews.com.

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