Now that Islamists have made some gains in the Arab revolutions, having won the majority of votes in Tunisia, Egypt's [parliamentary elections], Morocco, Kuwait and possibly other Arab countries, evaluating its track record is necessary to know where it stands, and where it can possibly be headed.
Political Islam has taken on a prominent role within the governments of Tunisia and Morocco, and it may do the same in the new Egyptian government. An Islamist candidate may win the Egyptian presidential election [which is currently taking place]. Debates continue to rage in Egypt, especially between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF], the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists.
This article sheds light on the way political Islam has been dealing with the Palestinian cause following its rise and access to power.
First, no one can deny that Islamists embrace the Palestinian cause. They opposed Israel's creation and its subsequent occupation of the rest of Palestine. They are against the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties with Israel, as well as the Oslo Accords. They oppose normalization and negotiations as a means to resolve the conflict with the Zionist entity, and adopt armed resistance, and Jihad in particular, for the liberation of Palestine. The liberation of Palestine is deemed as an Islamic duty that every Muslim must fulfill.
We saw how the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, especially the jihadists among them, demanded the abolition of the Camp David agreement and asked for support for the resistance in Palestine and Lebanon. They demanded an end to the siege of Gaza, and that the area be supported in the event of Israeli aggression, especially during the Israeli war against the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and early 2009. What’s more, the Muslim Brotherhood supported and allied itself with the resistance axis, which includes Iran, despite their differences.
The jihadist position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was one of the main reasons behind the Islamists’ oppression, repression and persecution. It also made the US, Israel and Europe prefer the reactionary and military-backed Arab dictatorships, over fears that political Islam would upset stability in the region.
It was clear that there were two alternatives in the Arab region: the military dictatorship of reactionary regimes or political Islam. This prompted the West to stop its calls for change and democracy, and their various other names or forms. The West prioritized its interests and influence in the region over the democratic and human values that it claims to embrace.
Before the revolutions, the West supported the military dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia. These dictatorships were closely tied to Israel under the pretext of maintaining stability in a region which they considered as very vital to preserve the interests and stability of the world. However, when the revolutions in those two countries started to gain an irreversible momentum, the West changed their strategy and chose to abandon their historic allies. Obama and members of his administration started asking former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to just “leave,” even though he offered the US and Israel services that they never dreamed of.
To explain this US-Western change in position, which was opposed by Israel for fear of the Islamist alternative, one must take into account the following points:
First, the revolutions came as a sweeping and storming surprise. They could not be stopped through direct military interference or through the support of local forces that are loyal to, but unable to confront, the West.
Second, the revolutions broke out amid a financial and economic crisis in the US and Europe. They took place in the aftermath of western defeats in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, amid a decline in the United States’ role across the world.
Third, the revolutions were spontaneous and incomplete. They were not based on an ideology, nor were they led by a particular party or a single leader who could control its path and bring about comprehensive change. Moreover, these revolutions have focused on freedom, dignity, justice, democracy and improving daily life. They failed to focus on the Palestinian cause or ridding their countries of foreign dependency and dominance. The Palestinian cause was present in the slogans and concerns of the revolutions, but it was never the central issue or one of the priorities.
Fourth, it should be noted that the failure to prioritize the Palestinian cause — and this is completely understandable given that the revolutionaries were focused on the survival of the revolutions and their local concerns — led to the emergence of another phenomenon. Islamist figures, from the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, have started sending moderated messages that reflect a remarkable positional shift on the Palestinian issue. How did this happen?
Islamists in Egypt are not promoting the liberation of Palestine, the adoption of jihad, the abolition of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty or the support of the resistance axis. There is a gradually expanding group among them that are saying that amending the peace agreements or insisting on their full implementation can be sufficient, or that it is a matter that should be settled by the constitutional institutions or a popular referendum. There was talk about commitment to the agreements, about the fact that the Jihad issue is off the current agenda, that the Palestinian issue should be resolved by Palestinians, that they will not be more [autocratic] than the king and that they will be satisfied by whatever pleases Palestinians.
Prominent Islamists have talked about imminent threats facing the nation, namely from Israel and Iran. These threats are replacing those that were posed by the US administration. The US attempts in Egypt to perpetuate dominance, subordination and absolute support for Israel, to make Israel a dominate regional power, are disappearing. We have even started seeing the development of Muslim Brotherhood relations with Gulf States, with Saudi Arabia in particular. Sunni Islamist voices are feeding sedition by inflaming the dispute with Iran, the Shiites and Hezbollah, and turning it into a Sunni-Shiite conflict.
US and European officials started visiting Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries, and US officials held meetings with the Muslim Brotherhood. The meetings have involved all levels of US diplomats, except the President.
Statements were issued by US officials close to the decision-makers that welcomed the nomination of Khairat al-Shater as the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. They considered him as moderate and acceptable compared to another rising Islamist star, Hazem Abu Ismail, who is deemed by the US administration as a radical Islamist candidate.
US policy is currently based on the classification of Islamists between moderates and extremists. The US will support moderates against extremists, but they will also try to involve them in their struggle, along with their allies in the Persian Gulf and Israel, against Iran, especially if there is war.
The US administration is well aware that it cannot prevent the Islamists’ rise to power, especially in Egypt. Thus, it attempts to curry favor with them and even tame them. Islamists have demonstrated that they are able to switch sides easily. In Egypt, for instance, they struck a deal with the SCAF, turning their back on revolution and Tahrir square. However, they have recently reversed directions again, as they realized that failing to exploit the revolution would jeopardize their chances of victory in the parliamentary elections. After losing some credibility, they returned to Tahrir square. However, the Egyptian presidential elections will prove if they still have a firm grip on the Egyptian street.
It is only fair to say that the moderate Brotherhood has not yet taken full control. This is possible, but by no means inevitable.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists are far removed from the US and Israel, and this gap cannot be easily bridged. When the Brotherhood was first established, it was a Jihadist movement that participated in Palestine’s war. Then, during the Cold War, it became an ally of the colonial West and its reactionary allies. The Muslim movement took the west’s side against the national and leftist movements, unaware of those movements’ war for national independence, Arab unity and social justice. The Muslim Brotherhood was also unaware of what those movements achieved, because their great achievements were overshadowed by their failures. The national and leftist movements prioritized socialism and social justice over democracy, and they believed that their general struggle was more important than individual voices. This lack of faith in democracy contributed to their failures.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s positions are greatly related to the events that took place in Palestine and Algeria, where Islamists won the elections but were unable to rule. Similarly in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, won the elections after it adopted a moderate program that preserved Turkey’s membership in NATO and its relations with Israel. This is not to mention their great political and economic achievements.
The Islamists seem confused between following the Taliban or Erdogan models. They fear repeating the Palestinian and Algerian scenario. Thus, the Islamist movement tends to be moderate, even at the expense of the Palestinian cause. This way, political Islam will have a greater chance to be accepted by the US and Europe as the leaders of Egypt and other Arab countries.
The Muslim Brotherhood has gone as far as to exert pressure on Hamas to espouse a more moderate ideology so that it will not hurt its attempts to win the favor of the US. This resulted in the Doha Agreement, where Khaled Meshaal, Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, declared President Mahdmoud Abbas the president of the national unity government. This government is to be formed during the transitional period. Hamas’ leaders, particularly in Gaza, consider this agreement as a free concession that threatens their unilateral control of Gaza. For this reason, they sought to disrupt it.