Monday, February 14, 2011

Islamist Parties After Tunisia And Egypt's Uprisings

By George Giacaman
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 14/02/2011 
The upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt have raised the question of the future of Islamist parties in the Middle East in a pressing way. If it is inevitable that they will be a part of government, what will be their agendas, how will they deal with current regional realities and what are the implications for Arab regimes and the United States and the European countries?

These questions are not new. In winning a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006, Hamas provided the first case in the Arab world where an opposition party, and an Islamist one at that, won free and fair elections and formed a Cabinet alone. The political and economic siege imposed on Hamas by Israel obviated the need to answer the difficult questions, at least temporarily. But if a Palestinian state is ever established, these questions will come back as it will be impossible not to include Hamas in a government in even a partly democratic system.

Now events in Tunisia and Egypt have placed these questions clearly on the agenda. In Tunisia, various spokesmen for the Islamic movement Al-Nahda have been at pains to assure Tunisians and the outside world that they will abide by democratic rules They have insisted that they accept the changes made by previous regimes to the Personal Status Law, providing for the equality of women and placing restrictions on a man marrying more than one wife. Even Rashid Ghannouchi, the head of Al-Nahda, who recently returned to Tunisia after 22 years in exile, declared that these changes were an acceptable interpretation within the Islamic tradition.

Various authoritarian Arab regimes use Islamists as a scarecrow to maintain their rule and make it acceptable to Western countries. “It’s either us or the Islamists,” has been their refrain. It has been a convenient arrangement for both the Western states and these regimes, as long as the interests of both are served. The discourse of democracy and human rights has been merely rhetorical, with little bearing on actual policy.

But the issues are not that simple, as Islamist parties themselves may one day have to decide how to face the challenges of government in the shadow of the Tunisian and Egyptian situations. How will they deal with the myriad problems or issues left behind by previous regimes? These include poverty, unemployment, rising food prices, globalised economic relations, regional alliances, and America’s policies in the Middle East, including Washington’s unwavering support for Israel.

That is not to speak of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Here one should expect that Islamist parties in Egypt, even if they make up only a part of the governing coalition, will seek a different course from the previous regime. Other Egyptian political parties will go along with this. This is bound to strengthen the balance between the Palestinian Authority and Israel since President Hosni Mubarak’s regime often weakened the Palestinians in negotiations, in spite of close relations between the two. It may even prod Washington to seek more seriously a political settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, so as not to lose Egypt.

And what of Hamas? Several Hamas officials have intimated that it might have been best for the moment, in retrospect, not to have formed a government on its own, or even make up a majority within a governing coalition. Hamas would have won more public support had it pursued an anti-corruption agenda (which in part was the reason behind the movement’s victory in Palestinian legislative elections), while holding a Palestinian executive accountable to such a program.

It remains to be seen what direction the Islamists will take in Tunisia and Egypt. However, I recall the advice given by Ghannouchi to Islamist parties in the Arab world a few years ago. He recommended that they not win more than 30 percent of seats in parliamentary elections because Arab regimes were not “ready” for them. I do not know if he has changed his mind as a result of the tumultuous changes in Tunisia and Egypt, but one can be sure that Islamist parties are no novices and that they are not what Arab regimes paint them to be. They also have great challenges to surmount, and these challenges are many.
George Giacaman is a faculty member at Bir Zeit University and contributes political analysis to Arab and international media. His most recent book, published this year, is “After Arafat: Political Transformation During the Second Intifada” (in Arabic). He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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