Mounting Concern Among Arab Liberals Over Rise of Political Islam

Article Summary
Mohammad al-Sayyad opines about the dilemma faced by Arab proponents of secular liberalism in the face of a rising Islamist current. He suggests that while the Arab Spring has provided Islamists with a golden opportunity to advance their program, liberals can learn much from the success of their religious rivals.

How would the liberal and modernist forces who established the modern civil state in the Arab world react to the historic rise to power of political Islam in several Arab countries?  The Islamists’ success appears to be spreading, as the second phase of the angry youth’s Arab Spring is coming to a close, with the breakdown of backward, ailing regimes that opposed renewal and progress.

The modernist Arab forces were shocked by the remarkable collective rise to power of these parties, happening simultaneously. Allies of the Muslim Brotherhood were successful in Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, and perhaps will soon be in Yemen and other countries, too.

The severity of this shock was not the “bitter harvest” of this broad popular movement. The results of these important Arab developments were not unexpected; on the contrary, they were in line with predictions. The shock was caused by the sudden transformation of mainly civil states into states with budding theocratic inclinations.

For the first time, civil and modern political currents, and the elites that represent their interests, lifestyle and culture in general, along with younger generations, feel that all the accomplishments of the Arab renaissance period are at the mercy of the new agendas of the Islamist movements, who were carried to power by the Arab Spring protests.

How serious are these fears? Without a doubt, they are very serious. Islamist movements have their own agendas — whether they follow the Muslim Brotherhood, which has risen to power in Tunisia and Morocco and will soon do likewise in Egypt and Yemen; or the Salafists, which came in second in terms of the number of seats in the Egyptian Parliament. These agendas are different from those announced during their electoral campaigns. Part of these hidden agendas were disclosed in statements made by several of their officials.

Nevertheless, civil parties in the Arab world must respect the will of the people who chose to vote for the candidates of Islamist movements. In the end, the people will judge their performance and choose to withdraw their trust if they notice discrepancies between these parties’ promises and their actions on the ground.

The Islamists were successful in attaining power in those Arab states where free and fair elections were held for the first time for several reasons. Civil parties should carefully study these reasons and learn their lessons, some of which are outlined below.

A significant portion of Islamic parties’ organizational staff are professional activists. In contrast, the staff of liberal and civil parties are part-time amateurs that help out after long working hours and taking care of their families. Therefore, they are more attached to their businesses than to their duties as political activists. They are also very influenced by any sudden turn of events, which can push them to prioritize their personal interests over their loyalty to a political party or cause.

During the election campaigns, political Islamist parties enjoyed enormous financial support, both foreign and internal, as compared to civil parties. This allowed the Islamists to win the heart and minds of simple people with their “generous gifts.”

Islamist forces knew how to capitalize on the historic chance offered by the revolutions of the brave Arab youth, who were fighting for their dreams. This chance was made possible with the help and guidance of a special regional and international arrangement, or “grand design,”  which sought to change the region in form and substance. No hurdles or moral implications would stop the US and its European allies from working with any party, as long as it met the condition of  safeguarding Western interests. They had already created Al-Qaeda (as admitted by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), and supported fundamentalist movements, cooperating with the Taliban when they were in power. The Taliban bought the West’s silence over their crimes by agreeing to a US-sponsored deal for constructing gas pipelines from Ashgabat (the capital of Turkmenistan) to Pakistan through Afghanistan, in order to export gas to European markets. (The parties to this deal were: Zalmay Khalilzad, a US official of Afghan origin who became the US ambassador to Iraq and then to the United Nations; the current Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the US company Unocal.)

The Islamists have finally seized, in their own way, the historic chance they have been waiting for. However, this sharp transformation in form and substance of the ruling authorities in the Arab World also offers a historic chance for the realignment and reformation of a broad civil, liberal movement. Moreover, many parts of society that have linked interests and affinities to the civil state would join and organize themselves within such a movement.

There is no doubt that the future and fate of the civil state, society, institutions and lifestyle in the Arab world is facing a great challenge. The codependent social forces will have to exert professional and serious efforts to defend the accomplishments and modern values that have been won through decades of hard work.

Found in: secularism, salafists, islamists, elections

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