Spoilt ballots

Spoilt ballots

Moderate Islamist movements across the Arab world have made a decisive turn towards participation in democratic politics over the last 20 years. They have developed an elaborate ideological justification for contesting elections, which they have defended against intense criticism from more radical Islamist competitors. At the same time, they have demonstrated a commitment to internal democracy remarkable by the standards of the region, and have repeatedly proved their willingness to respect the results of elections even when they lose.

But rather than welcome this development, secular authoritarian regimes have responded with growing repression. Again and again, successful electoral participation by Islamists has triggered a backlash, often with the consent – if not the encouragement – of the United States. When Hamas prevailed in the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, the response was boycott and political subversion. When the Egyptian government cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood after elections in 2005, few outsiders objected.

As the door to democracy is slammed in their faces, how have the Islamist groups that embraced participation responded? In some ways, they have passed the test with flying colours. They have remained committed to democratic participation even in the face of massive electoral fraud and harsh campaigns of repression. Their leaders have affirmed their democratic ideals, and have often spoken out to reiterate their ideological and strategic commitment to democracy. Indeed, they have often emerged as the leading advocates for public freedoms and democratic reform. And there is as yet little sign of any such organisation turning to violence as an alternative.

But in other ways, the toll of repression is beginning to show. Doubts about the value of democratic participation inside these movements are growing. Splits in the top ranks have roiled movements in Jordan and Egypt, among others. In many of the cases, a Brotherhood leadership which prefers a moderate, accommodationist approach to the regime has struggled to find a way to respond to the escalating pressures of repression and the closing down of the paths towards democratic participation. In Egypt, frustration over extended detentions of the most moderate leaders have tarnished the coin of those calling for political participation, with a rising trend calling for a retreat from politics and a renewed focus upon social activism and religious work. In Jordan, the influence of those seeking to abandon worthless domestic politics and to focus instead on supporting Hamas has grown.

Critics of the Brotherhood have pointed to these recent struggles as evidence that Islamists cannot be trusted with democracy. But this profoundly misreads the current trends. These crises in fact reflect a delayed response to the blocked promise of democratic participation. The Islamist debate today is not about the legitimacy of democracy – it is about how to respond to frustrated efforts to play the democratic game.

I recently spent a week in Amman, talking to most of the senior leaders of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood as well as a cross-section of the country’s political and journalistic elite. The picture that emerged was one not simply of an Islamist movement in crisis, but also of a blocked and deteriorating political system. The government was in the process of declining to call the Parliament back into session in order to force through its desired legislation as temporary laws of dubious constitutionality. Stories of social conflict among the tribes and of crushing economic problems amid spiralling corruption filled daily conversation.

The Jordanian Brotherhood, established in 1946, is one of the oldest and most deeply rooted branches of the global Islamist organisation. Unlike in many other countries, where the Brotherhood worked in opposition to those in power, in Jordan it played a crucial role for decades in supporting the Hashemite throne against external and domestic challengers. In return, it enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Jordanian state, including control over key ministries, and good relations with King Hussein in spite of his friendly ties with Israel and the United States.

When Jordan lost the West Bank in the 1967 war, it struggled to maintain its role in the occupied territories. In 1988, however, as the Palestinian Intifada raged and threatened to spread to the East Bank, Jordan formally renounced its claims, severing its ties and concentrating on developing the East Bank and “Jordanising” the truncated state, a decision that was not accepted by the Brotherhood, which maintained ties with its West Bank counterparts.

When riots broke out throughout the country the next year, King Hussein responded with a remarkable democratic opening which revitalised the Kingdom’s political life. The Brotherhood participated fully in this process, and emerged in the 1989 elections as the dominant bloc in Parliament. The years that followed are fondly remembered in Jordan as the apex of political life, with an effective Parliament, a “national pact” establishing the ground rules of democracy and a vibrant emerging press.

In 1993, however, the Jordanian regime changed the electoral law in a way that served to limit Muslim Brotherhood success. As it moved rapidly towards a peace treaty with Israel, the state began to clamp down on the Brotherhood and on all other forms of political opposition. Its interventions in the political process grew so extreme that in 1997 the Brotherhood’s political party, the Islamic Action Front, decided to boycott elections. After King Hussein’s death in 1999, the crown passed to his son Abdullah, who showed little interest in democratic reform, and in 2001 decided to suspend Parliament and rule by emergency law. While formal democracy returned in 2003, political reform efforts failed to gain traction. The extent of electoral fraud against the Brotherhood and other critics of the regime during the 2007 vote shocked even jaded observers.

The Jordanian crackdown has not reached the brutal levels of Syria or Tunisia (where the Islamist opposition was massacred or driven abroad). The Brotherhood continues to operate publicly, and the Islamic Action Front holds six seats in Parliament. But the gerrymandered electoral system and massive fraud has hamstrung Islamist political participation, to the degree that many believe that the Brotherhood is being dared to boycott.

Following the 2007 electoral debacle, the Brotherhood entered a period of intense internal unrest. It dissolved its Shura Council as penance for its fateful decision to participate in the election. The core issue was over how best to respond to the regime’s repression: through confrontation, or through a retreat and consolidation of the political strategy? In April 2008, the “hawkish” trend won the internal elections to the Shura Council by a single vote, and the pragmatic and domestically-orientated Salem Falahat was replaced by the fiery, Palestine-centric hawk Himmam Said. Said and the new head of the Islamic Action Front, Zaki Bani Arshid, steered the Islamist movement into more direct conflict with the regime, with little success. The reformist trend, led by the soft-spoken intellectual Ruheil Ghuraybeh, avoided open confrontation but advanced an ambitious programme to transform Jordan into a constitutional monarchy.

As the Brotherhood rank and file lost interest in a stalled domestic political process, they were simultaneously galvanised by the electoral success of Hamas and then by the visceral images of Israel’s war on Gaza. The growing interest in Palestinian issues at the expense of Jordanian politics worried not only the regime but also the traditional leadership of the Brotherhood. The leading Jordanian journalist Mohammed Abu Rumman argues that the issue of relations with Hamas has supplanted the traditional “hawk-dove” struggle within the organisation. While both trends support Hamas – “if you are not with Hamas, you are not with the Muslim Brotherhood”, explained one of the “dovish” leaders – they disagree over the appropriate organisational relationship. The “Hamasi” trend supports close ties and the prioritisation of Palestinian issues, and embraces a common Muslim identity over a narrowly Jordanian one. The “reformist” trend insists that Hamas, as the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, should have responsibility for Palestine while the Jordanian Brotherhood must be a national organisation focused upon domestic Jordanian issues.

This crisis came to a head over the issue of Hamas participation in the administrative structures of the Jordanian Brotherhood. Three leading reformists resigned from the Executive Office, triggering an as-yet-unresolved internal crisis that threatens one of the first serious internal splits in the history of the movement. The media has eagerly egged this conflict on; indeed, a number of Brotherhood leaders told me that what made the current crisis unique was not the issues at stake or the intensity of the disagreement, but the fact that for the first time it had become public.

The story of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is many things, but certainly not a story of Islamists retreating from democracy. Similar dynamics can be seen in Egypt, where the Brotherhood’s leadership is similarly divided over how to respond to escalating repression. During multiple trips to Cairo in the last few years, I saw the growing frustration of a generation of reformists who found their every effort to embrace democracy met with force and rejection.

After “independent” Brotherhood candidates scored sweeping victories in the first of three rounds of the 2005 Parliamentary elections, government forces began to intervene to prevent further gains. Despite well-documented fraud and heavy-handed security interference in Brotherhood strongholds, the movement emerged as the largest opposition bloc with 88 seats. As Deputy Supreme Guide Mohammed Habib ruefully told me, their mistake was that they did too well – had they won 50 seats, perhaps they would not have triggered such harsh reprisals.

The subsequent crackdown matched the magnitude of the Brotherhood victory. A series of media campaigns aimed to scare mainstream Egyptians with alleged nefarious Brotherhood schemes (they were supposedly training an underground militia, conspiring with Hizbollah, and more). A wide range of leading Brotherhood figures, including noted moderates such as the financier Khairat el Shater and the intellectual Abd el Monem Abou el Fattouh, were detained indefinitely on trumped up charges.

For a while, the Egyptian Brotherhood held fast in the face of these provocations. They continued to try to participate in elections even as the fraud and overt manipulation mounted. Their Parliamentarians performed well as an opposition. They routinely expressed their ongoing commitment to democracy to every audience which would listen. And they imposed discipline on their own members to prevent the explosion of frustration into violence.

But over time, the pressure began to take its toll. The leadership reined in its freewheeling young bloggers, whose public airing of internal issues was being exploited by the organisation’s opponents. It adopted tougher rhetoric on foreign policy issues such as the Gaza war – attacking the Egyptian government’s enforcement of the blockade of Gaza – in part to rally its demoralised membership. Considerable evidence suggests that the cadres of the organisation were growing disenchanted with politics and preferred to return to the core social and religious mission. And growing voices from inside and outside the movement began to suggest retreating from politics until a more propitious time.

Earlier this month the conflicts inside the Egyptian Brotherhood leapt into the pages of local newspapers, which reported that the movement’s leader, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, had abruptly resigned his post in protest after conservatives refused to appoint the leading reformist Essam el Erian to an open leadership seat. Akef has denied the reports – but the portrait of a movement in turmoil is clear. The Jordanian, Egyptian and American governments may see all this as something of a success story: the influence of the Islamists has been curbed, both in formal politics and in the social sector, and the restraint exercised by the Brotherhood leadership has meant the states have not faced a backlash. But this is dangerously short-sighted. The campaigns against Islamists weaken the foundations of democracy as a whole, not just the appeal of one movement, and have had a corrosive effect on public freedoms, transparency and accountability. Regardless of the fortunes of the movements themselves, the crackdown on the Islamists contributes to the wider corruption of public life. The growing frustration within moderate Islamist groups with democratic participation cannot help but affect their future ideological trajectory.

Sowing disenchantment with democratic politics in the ranks of the Brotherhood could forfeit one of the signal developments in Islamist political thinking of the last few decades. The failure of the movement’s democratic experiment could empower more radical Islamists, including not only terrorist groups but also doctrinaire salafists less inclined to pragmatic politics. The degradation of its organisational strengths could open up space for al Qa’eda and other radical competitors to move in. he alternative to Ismail Haniya might be Osama bin Laden rather than Abu Mazen, and the exclusion of Essam el-Erian may not produce an Ayman Nour.

Marc Lynch is associate professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He writes a blog on Arab politics and media for Foreign Policy.