Rising Islamist tide in Middle East politics

The reaction in much of the world to Hamas’ stunning election victory was shock and alarm. But for Islamist groups across the Middle East, Hamas’ defeat of the mainstream Fatah movement was a welcome boon, the first real opportunity to assert the power of political Islam.

The results of the Palestinian elections will shake up the region’s mostly autocratic rulers, dashing hopes of a resumption of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks and acting as a reminder that Islamists remain the only potent and organised political force.

“This win, along with others like the one of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, only proves further to Arab governments and the world that the Arabs are leaning towards Islam,” Mohamed Habib, deputy leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, said yesterday.

The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 and later spawned Hamas among other non-violent as well as some extremist Islamist groups. But it has itself renounced violence.

Despite being banned it made spectacular gains in parliamentary polls in Egypt at the end of last year.

For Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, who has been struggling to contain the rising influence of the Brotherhood, the Palestinian elections represent a particularly disappointing setback. Arab governments, led by Egypt, convinced the Palestinian Authority last year to delay the elections, mostly out of fear of a Hamas victory.

Arab officials discussed pouring up to $800m of Gulf capital into infrastructure in the Gaza Strip after the Israeli withdrawal, to improve the Palestinian Authority’s image and ability to deliver services. But few petrodollars have since materialised. Instead, in the run-up to the elections Gaza descended into lawlessness.

Hamas had the rare advantage of competing in a free election, something that most other Arabs are denied. But its performance is the most impressive manifestation of a broader regional trend that has seen Islamists over the past year making gains in every democratic opening, however limited.

Only a few years ago, political Islam was considered to be on the decline, partly stunted by the 1991 cancellation of elections that Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was set to win. The move by the military plunged the country into a long civil war and devastated the FIS, serving as a bleak warning to other Islamists aspiring for power through the ballot box.

The September 11 2001 attacks also put Islamist parties on the defensive, and gave Arab regimes an excuse for harsher crackdowns.

But as US pressure for democratisation in the region has gained momentum, Islamists, whether militant or non-violent, have been the most adept at capitalising on the popular discontent with existing governments.

“The Hamas victory underlines that these groups cannot be underestimated any more,” said Dia Rashwan, an Islamist expert at Cairo’s Al Ahram centre for political and strategic studies.

In Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, the Muslim Brotherhood extended its representation more than five times in parliamentary polls last December, forming the largest opposition block. Lebanon’s Shia Hizbollah, the militant group, performed well in last summer’s parliamentary vote, consolidating its position as the most powerful Shia party.

In Saudi Arabia, where political parties are banned, Islamist candidates running as independents won the largest share of the vote in elections to half the seats in municipal elections last year, the first democratic experiment in the kingdom. Even in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein had already been ousted from power, an Islamist Shia coalition has emerged with a near majority in parliament.

Faced with these results, some Arab governments, and even liberal intellectuals, have been arguing that the US should now reconsider its approach to democracy in the Arab world – an argument that will be reinforced by the Hamas victory.

Yet Hamas’ performance was at least partly an indictment of the Palestinian Authority’s bankrupt rule and its failure to deliver on peace run an effective government. Similar popular frustrations with existing regimes elsewhere in the region – particularly perceptions of high-level corruption – often drive the popular enthusiasm towards Islamist parties, seen as pious and dedicated to social justice.

In much of the rest of the region, the rise of political Islam over the last two decades has been bolstered by the disappointment in the secular ideology of Arab nationalism and the near irrelevance of parties still adhering to it.

Islamist parties have also been strengthened by rulers’ resistance to genuine political liberalisation that could allow new secular alternatives to widen their appeal.