From Cornell International Affairs Review VOL. 1 NO. 1
Domestic Dynamics of Political Islam in the Greater Middle East: Case Studies of Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait and Turkey
Over the past six years, within the framework of the U.S.-led ‘war on terror’, leaders such as Egypt’s Mubarak and Algeria’s Bouteflika have been able to exploit the threat of terrorism to justify the brazen reinforcement of the authoritarian nature of their regimes. In these countries, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the sudden rise in popularity of Islamic movements can be partially explained as a reaction to the continued despotism of governmental elites. Desperate for change, an overwhelming number of citizens are turning to the Islamic groups that sometimes represent, if not the most appealing, at least the most proactive and promising alternative to oppression.
In recent years, both the dismantling of terrorist networks and the promotion of democracy throughout the Middle East and North Africa have established themselves as central pillars of post-9/11 American foreign policy. In the eyes of a staunchly neoconservative Bush administration devoted to its epic Wilsonian battle to bring freedom and democracy to the Muslim world, political developments taking place in Egypt cannot help but be of central importance. Home to the Arab world’s largest population and widely recognized as a traditional hub of Arab culture and politics, Egypt has also spent the last quarter-century under the oppressive control of an autocratic regime and has become a fluid exporter of dangerous radicals and extremists, such as Al Qaeda senior member Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Since 2001, Mubarak’s regime has become a key ally for the United States in its efforts to quell nascent terrorist networks in the Arab world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently observed that the United States benefited from a “strategic partnership” with Egypt that constituted a “cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East.”15 At a time when the United States is having difficulty maintaining, let alone establishing, alliances with Arab countries, it can hardly afford to jeopardize those alliances that it does have. Thus, even though such a move might go against popular demand in Egypt, the United States needs to support the Egyptian regime simply because turning against Mubarak and his National Democratic Party could potentially threaten the political stability of the nation. It is important to note that, since 1979 shortly after the Camp David Accords, “Egypt [has been] the second largest recipient of U.S foreign aid…[receiving] about US$1.3 billion in military aid and about US$800 million in economic assistance”16 annually. This financial support should theoretically give the United States substantial leverage over Mubarak and help to pressure him into adopting effective democratic reforms. And yet the United States has taken relatively little advantage of its position of power. In recent years, the Bush administration has shown no signs of trying to reprimand Mubarak for his oppressive methods by reducing the amount of foreign aid they provide Egypt annually. This lack of reaction to Mubarak’s authoritarianism can be interpreted as a reflection of how vulnerable the United States has become in regards to regional politics. But it can also further be seen as a testimony of “the tacit support the American government provides Egypt’s growing dictatorship. ‘American policy has decided stability is more important than democracy,’ said George Ishaq, a leader of the opposition Kifaya movement”17.
Within the context of the American anti-terrorism campaign, Mubarak’s administration, emboldened by its American backing, has been able to continue to ignore human and civil rights by supposedly acting for the sake of peace and security.18 In a 2007 report entitled “Systematic abuses in the name of security,” Amnesty International notes that “torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests and detention, and grossly unfair trials before emergency and military courts have all been key features of Egypt’s 40-year state of emergency and counter-terrorism campaign.”19
A couple of recent examples reflect the deceptive and autocratic methods of Mubarak. In regards to the presidential elections, which were “marred by voter irregularities and intimidation,”20 he took the necessary steps to ensure that his opponents would not stand a chance. Furthermore, many supporters of the opposition were rapidly disqualified from the electoral process. And finally, the government arrested Mubarak’s popular opponent, Ayman Nour, the founder of the independent and secular al-Ghad party, only several months before the elections.21-22 Ayman Nour’s example provides an idea of how dangerous it can be for an individual to present himself as an independent liberal candidate in Egypt, and especially to appear as an appealing and promising alternative to the repressive Mubarak.
Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood
In protest to the rising levels of authoritarianism in Egypt, a growing number of Egyptians are turning to Islamist parties, among which the most popular has proven to be the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2005 Parliamentary elections, to the great surprise of many, the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood won roughly 20% of the Parliament seats. According to Edam Gad, “the crises plaguing the secular opposition are also the result of a longstanding government strategy of pre-empting the emergence of secular alternatives to the NDP.”23 In any case, it appears that the Muslim Brotherhood is proving itself as an efficient political organization.
Mubarak’s has acquired such a firm control over Egyptian politics that he no longer needs to worry about being reelected. Government officials have no reason to satisfy the needs of the Egyptian people. The absence of governmental intervention to solve issues of unemployment and poor living conditions in many parts of Egypt, combined with rampant abuses of power, has created tremendous dissatisfaction within the Egyptian population. As a result, many Egyptians are increasingly eager for any political change that might lead to improved living conditions.
The Muslim Brotherhood, on the contrary, in its struggle to accumulate support within Egyptian society, has been making itself directly available to constituents in the neighborhoods they represent. However, plagued by a long tradition of extremism and violence, it is still looked upon by many with high doses of skepticism and suspicion.
Historically, the organization seems to have struggled with the diverging pull of two contradictory forces. On the one hand, the Brotherhood has benefited from the leadership of supreme guides such as the movements founder, Hassan al-Banna. Unlike the Brotherhood’s radical elements, men like Hassan al-Banna were predominantly devoted to moderation and openness, and the movement has, at times, stressed the importance of pacifism and dialogue. Yet the Brotherhood can also be held responsible for the assassination of a Prime Minister, of President Sadat, and for countless other acts of terrorism. It has also provided a platform for prominent radicals such as Sayyid Qutb, author of the militant and revolutionary “Milestones” and mentor to modern-day extremists such as Al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri.24
In recent years, since officially renouncing violence in the 1970’s, the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood has made considerable efforts to present itself as an organized and trustworthy political force. In an article for the New York Times Magazine entitled “Islamic Democrats?,” a member of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc expressed this concern: ‘We would like to change the idea people have of us in the West, because when people hear the name Muslim Brotherhood, they think terrorism. We want to establish the perception of an Islamic group concerned about human rights.’25
Nevertheless, many people remain skeptic about the Muslim Brotherhood today. Some critics have a hard time trusting the Brotherhood, afraid that behind its peaceful and moderate rhetoric, the organization might retain the same radical designs of a state based on the precepts of Islam.
In the end, despite all the doubts and skepticism that surround the Muslim Brotherhood, the facts remain the same: support for the Islamist political movement is rising. It is interesting to note the extent to which the circumstances that are fueling the Brotherhood’s popularity today are similar to those that first vitalized the movement in the 1930’s. Having lost all faith in the current political regime, Egyptians view the Muslim Brotherhood as the most potent vehicle for political change and they turn to it as their only chance to see the end of Mubarak’s ‘police state.’
Most recently, in early 2007, despite widespread protests and boycotts, Mubarak’s administration forced constitutional changes through both the parliament and a public referendum that will serve to further centralize the distribution of powers. With amendments to the constitution, Mubarak has finally found a way to legitimize his undemocratic and authoritative activities. “Amnesty International called the changes ‘the greatest erosion of human rights in 26 years.”26 Among other things, Mubarak has exploited the threat of terrorism to finally institutionalize some of the state-of-emergency laws on which he has relied since his rise to power in 1981.27 Other amendments have established changes that will considerably hinder the democratic process, especially for Islamic groups. One such amendment prohibits all official political parties from being based on religion. These changes reflect the fact that, since the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2005 parliamentary elections, Mubarak has had to adapt to the new threat posed by Islamic political groups and especially the Muslim Brotherhood.
The political situation in Egypt reflects how a trend of growing authoritarianism among some North African states since 2001 has affected the domestic politics of these nations. Rather than be construed as proof of a deep conviction in the advantages of Islamic government, the widespread support that the Egyptian population is showing for the Muslim Brotherhood should be seen as an effort to promote change and to reject Mubarak’s corrupt administration. Thus, for a country supposedly dedicated to stalling Islamist political groups and fostering democracy in countries across the Middle East and North Africa, the persistent support of the US for president Hosni Mubarak seems simply counterproductive. Instead of increasing the appeal of Islamist groups such as Muslim Brotherhood by propping up an overtly despotic and repressive regime, maybe the U.S should revise its policies and try to create a free and open political arena in Egypt. This move could restore faith in Western, and especially American, governmental institutions, and it would certainly help moderate secular movements to realize their true potential.
In the wake of the failed nationalism of the Nasser era and of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, governments across the Middle East are being constantly pressured to find a system that is deemed acceptable to devout Muslims. An Islamization of government is one path to reform suggested by rising political parties. In the West, this is viewed as something completely counter to democracy; thus, any such action would further alienate the countries of the Middle East from the West. In countries where there are considerable gains from maintaining stable relations with the West, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, an alienation of their top trading partners would be something to avoid. The disastrous conditions in Iraq that came about through sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States after the Persian Gulf War made clear that even the most oil rich nations can not prosper without some outlet to the West. However, an overly successful relationship with the West can lead to a lack of legitimacy for the government in the eyes of other Muslim states and religious Muslim citizens. For the Kuwaiti government, therefore, a middle ground must be found in order to maintain economic and political stability.
Western influence and interest in Kuwait predates Kuwait’s independence. In 1913 the British and the Ottomans convened to discuss the status of Kuwait’s autonomy. Both sides agreed that Kuwait would remain as part of the Ottoman Empire. Following the First World War, Kuwait became a British protectorate. It was granted independence in 1961. As time went on, the US became Kuwait’s primary relation in the West. The relationship between the two countries grew closer as the US protected Kuwaiti ships from Iran in a maritime protection program in 1987. After the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, these relations grew even closer as the United States spearheaded UN Security Council demands that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait or be removed through force. After the US victory over Iraq in 1991, Kuwait renounced aspects of its boycott of Israel. Today, the United States has over 100 military contracts with Kuwait totaling over 8 billion dollars and the US remains Kuwait’s biggest supplier of commercial goods and services.
The political system in Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy. The parliament has very little power over the monarch. Opposition to the crown is not tolerated, and there are many instances of newspapers being closed down and free speech rallies being dispersed. The resentment that forms because of this type of action is a handy tool for Islamist opponents to the regime. Thus, Islamic fundamentalism in Kuwaiti politics has found a comfortable home alongside outspoken, non-Islamist critics of the Kuwaiti regime. This alliance became so much of a threat to the crown that the Kuwaiti parliament has been shut down several times since the appearance of the Islamists in the late 1970’s.
So what exactly are the specific aims of these Islamist politicians? They are proponents of a return to the Shariah, or law by Islamic decree. This in part comes from a notion that Islamic law is far more moral than any secular law.28 Also, nostalgia for the system which characterized the powerful Islamic empires of ancient times also plays a role in the advocacy for Islamization of government.
One of the most important forces in the push for Islamic reform is the Kuwait Islamic Constitutional Movement or ICM. The ICM differs from many other Islamist movements because of its goal of Islamization through constitutional reform. While extreme Islamist movements tend to favor an overthrow of the government, the ICM looks to further its goals through legal government reform. This key difference makes the ICM a viable option for people who favor an Islamic version of government and law but do not adopt the use of violence.29
The ICM is the legal wing of Kuwait’s Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait was formally linked to its parent organization in Egypt until 1991. Its main functions are in the areas of charity and social functions. However, it did make occasional forays into politics; the most notable during the suspension of parliament in 1976. When parliament was reinstated in 1981, the Muslim Brotherhood won a few seats. The biggest political breakthrough for the organization came in 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait; this led to the creation of the ICM.30 The younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood stayed in Kuwait and formed a resistance movement. It was these resistance fighters who later created the ICM, these same men also broke ties with the Muslim Brotherhood outside of Kuwait claiming that not enough support was given to help liberate Kuwait.
Although no one Islamic movement has been powerful enough to win a majority in parliament, Islamic movements and the ICM in particular were instrumental in forming a reformist majority that was elected in the 2006 parliamentary elections. When the Amir died and a power struggle broke out between the Royal Family in 2006, the ICM used the confusion created to reach out to populist and leftist movements to form a reformist coalition.31Continued on Next Page »