The Failure of Democracy under Islamism

Samir Yousif


The Revolution of the Young

The Arab Spring that created unprecedented hope turned to be a bad winter. The young revolted, while the old reaped the benefits.  But what has actually gone wrong? The uncontrolled, unorganized young masses went in peaceful demonstrations challenging the well-established dictator. Their demands were simple: a better life, and a better future. Their demands never had a religious dimension. No one ever demanded a return to Sharia. On the contrary, the demands were very secular and liberal in their nature. They demanded a real democracy, an end to corruption and a fair economic establishment.  All the demands of the young were never part of an Islamist agenda.

Then Islamists suddenly popped up, taking over and harvesting the fruits of the Revolution. These unexpected developments sent out shocking waves all over the region. Who are the Islamists and what was their origin? Let’s start this article by quickly reviewing the prelude to democracy and then   to grasp the consequences of cultural differences that exist between Europe and the Arab / Muslim countries and their impact on the practice of democracy.

A prelude to Democracy

The difference between East Europe and the Arab countries as Thomas L. Friedman, writing in the International Herald Tribune on March 1st, 2012, puts it: “… Michael Mandelbaum, the foreign policy expert at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, noted that  ”We …tend to believe that inside every autocracy is a democracy dying to get out, but that might not be true in the Middle East.” It was true in Eastern Europe in 1989, added Mandelbaum, but there are two big differences between Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Many East European countries had a recent liberal past to fall back on-after the artificially imposed Soviet Communism was removed. And Eastern Europe also had a compelling model and magnet for free market democracy right next door: The European Union.  Most of the Arab Muslim world has neither, so when the iron lid of autocracy comes off they fall back, not on Liberalism, but Islamism, sectarianism, tribalism, or military rule”.

But, while I agree with Michael Mandelbaum analysis, I believe that he has left behind a crucial factor unmentioned.   In Western Europe Liberalism prevailed centuries after the political defeat of the Church and the spread of the ideas of reform of Martin Luther (1483-1546), John Calvin (1509-1564) and others.  That has not happened yet in the Muslim world. On the contrary, the Liberal demonstrations of the young generations in search for dignity, justice and free expression took place at a time Muslim religion in its fundamental version was not only the strongest prevailing ideology in society, but practically the only one.

This fact produces disequilibrium in the political order in such societies. Free elections, modernity, civil institutions, equality, liberal thinking, and women’s rights, are all alien to fundamental and traditional Islamic thinking and are categorically rejected.  The political values of Islam under the principle of SHURA are contradictory with the values of Liberal democracy and the co-existence of both ideologies is under question.  What is required in Muslim countries is not a Political Reform process, as many espouse for, but rather a radical reform within religion itself.

The Origin of Modern Islamism

After the First World War the political picture prevailing throughout the Middle East and the Muslim World was characterized by secular and nationalist political movements. The reaction to the defeat and disintegration of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War was not only visible in Turkey with Ataturk overtaking power and turning Turkey into a modern secular State, but also throughout the Ottoman colonies, especially the Arab Middle East where the trend to move away from the Islamic Caliphate was overriding.   During the period of independence from classical colonialism, religion was nearly absent and played no part in such movements. This was valid not only for Muslim Middle East countries, but also for countries in both continents in Asia as well as Africa. Third world independent movements were guided by national political parties and strongly backed by the Eastern Block. Communism and different Marxist groups played central roles in the independence movements after the Second World War. Let us take a well-known example from the Middle East: Egypt under Gamal Abdul Nasser.

In 1952 a young army officer called Gamal Abdul Nasser managed to take power in Cairo after a successful military coup.  The ideology adopted by Nasser was that of “Pan Arabism” strongly backed by a socialist agenda.  Later his ideology was known to be “Arab Socialism”. His message was addressed to all Arabs throughout the Middle East. He used the struggle against imperialism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as his central theme of focus and a main tool for spreading his propaganda.

During the 1950’s and the 1960’s Nasser and the ideology of Arab Socialism monopolized the political arena in the Middle East. Military take overs took places in different Arab countries following the guidelines of Nasser. Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Mauritania and Libya are good examples of that legacy. The same picture continued after the 6-day War of 1967. The different Palestinian groups were either nationalist, like Fatah, or Marxist-oriented organizations.

This picture of national plus leftist groups dominated the Third-World Liberation spectrum. Rebel organizations in different countries also adopted one form of Marxism as their official ideology. A religious man had no place within such circumstances for he was considered to be backward, uneducated and was very despised by the elite, or the politically-motivated masses.

In the Third World Marxism became the modern stream of “scientific” thinking and it was the most popular expanding ideology.  This phenomenon represented the main challenge to Western Europe and the USA during post-Second World War Cold War.

I believe that both the US and Western Europe encouraged religious centers and movements in both Asia and Africa as part of the imperatives of the Cold War. Religion was one of the main tools against the spread of Communism. It was under such circumstances that Grand Ayatollah Khomeini declared his revolt against the Shah of Iran at the end of the 1970’s. This declaration marked the birth of modern Islamism.

The success of Khomeini Revolution in Iran was followed by several attempts to “export” the Revolution leading to the 8-year long Iraq-Iran war. Across the borders and into Afghanistan, the Soviet occupation was fighting fierce guerilla warfare with the Mujahedeen.  The international balance of power was facing serious disequilibrium in that area.

Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamic Revolution received high levels of international publicity. Later political developments increased the attention to the Islamic Revolution such as the occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran. All these developments gave great publicity to Shiite version of Islam at a time when this sect represented less than 20% of the total Muslims worldwide while the rest were Sunni Muslims.

But regardless of the sectarian division in Islam, the revolution of Khomeini pushed Muslim societies 1400 years backwards. The interest in Islam was revived significantly and turned to be the “modern”, or the latest fashion. That interest included all sides of life from an upsurge in Islamic studies to wearing Hijab by secular-minded women. 

The success of Shiite Muslims in Iran pushed to the limits Sunni Muslim traditional organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MBH) and led to the formation of new movements, especially the Sunni fundamentalist groups.  Fierce competition between the Shiite and Sunni groups continued all the way along. Regional conflicts further increased the formation and development of such groups as was seen during the Lebanese civil war, in Chechnya and the civil war in the Baltic caused by the dismantling of Socialist Yugoslavia.

But the World had to wait until September 11, 2001 to witness the reply of Sunni Muslims to Grand Ayatollah Khomeini Revolution of the late 1070’s.

Sunni Islamic groups and organizations were formed in all Arab countries and were banned in one way or another. The suppression of these well-organized groups during the late part of the twentieth century in countries suffering from high levels of corruption and political mismanagement provided general popularity to these groups. Islam is the Solution was the slogans of these groups that spread strongly throughout the poor classes of society. The general political atmosphere during the last decades of the twentieth century excluded the participation of Islamism, and prevented them from taking power. This exclusion further strengthened such groups and increased their popularity. Islamism had to move underground and to wait until the arrival of the Arab Spring.

 Role of the Conservative Arabs

During the demonstrations Qatar managed to play a vital role in influencing the course and direction of the so-called Arab Spring. The Qatari Al-Jazeera Satellite TV paved the way. The significant financial support that came from Qatar to the well-organized Islamists groups guaranteed it a permanent seat in the newly evolving power center. While the Youth were engaged in bringing down the regime, the Islamists were planning to take full advantage of the outcomes of the regime change.

From the other side, it was noted that the newly evolving system in Tunis was unaware of such developments. The Islamists Leader Ganushi dismissed any plans to participate in the coming elections as he landed in Tunis Airport arriving from London. By saying that, he succeeded in distracting the attention away from the Islamists and their plans in the upcoming elections. The legal setup of countries facing regime- change misses important aspects of proper electoral systems. Proper legislation should be in-place before elections take place. Such legislation should include Political Parties Law that governs the process of elections and specifies the sources of funding.  This” legal gap” in the system was fully utilized by both Qatar and Saudi Arabia.  Through the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera Satellite TV and the Saudi Al-Arabiya Satellite TV, both Qatar and Saudi Arabia managed to have their places within the revolutions.

Paradoxically both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have no democratic experience and suffer from human rights abuses, yet they claimed to be the main supporters of the democratic changes taken place in specific countries of the Middle East.  That was clear in the case of Syria as they provided clear support to the Sunni insurgency, in sharp contrast to the case of Bahrain as they supported the ruling establishment in crushing the reform movement. Their attitudes are determined by sectarian considerations. For this reason, the term Arab Spring includes popular revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, but excludes Syria. The reform movement in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain was brutally crushed.

The challenge facing Political Islam

The success of the Islamists alienated other segments in society that once played the leading role in the Arab Spring. These segments are representatives of the middle classes, and their role in society is vital for the success of the political process.  The struggle between these two groups is very fierce.  In Tunis as well as in Egypt the strategy of the Islamists is to write the Constitution according to their agenda (Sharia) in order to ensure their continuation in monopolizing future elections.  The middle classes and the young generations have shown great concern regarding the agenda of political Islam. Any introduction of Sharia shall represent a serious step backwards for society and further deterioration in living standards. Similar developments are taking place in Libya.

For Tunisia what can Political Islam achieve? The share of the Service Sector in the Tunisian economy is over 60% (2007), while the share of the industrial sector is around 25% and finally the share of the agricultural sector is just around 11%. Such figures should not be surprising in such a developing country that is located on the shores of the Mediterranean that suffers greatly from the absence of a fresh water source (river) and depends mainly on rain and high-cost underground water.  These figures indicate the importance of tourism to the daily lives of the Tunisian population. Any interference by Political Islam in the Service Sector will be catastrophic, and will aggravate the unemployment problem.  This was the first challenge that faced the Islamists and their political agenda.

The core of the crisis that is facing Political Islam in all the Muslim countries is the simple fact that Sharia which is considered to be the Universal Code of Conduct provides no solutions or guidelines to present day economic problems. On the contrary the application of Sharia will aggravate the existing social and economic problems and it will lead to closing down of complete sectors and limiting the participation of women. This crisis represents the real challenge that Political Islam has to solve. Political Islam won the first elections in Tunisia on the promise that “Islam is the Solution” as Sayd Qutb and other Islamists have promised. Now if Political Islam runs the country without introducing Sharia then it will lose its supporters. This case is similar to a socialist party that claims it can run a capitalist economy better than the capitalists themselves. We just have to wait and see, and I expect to find that political Islam is no different from other political parties that aim to win the elections and nothing else.

The success of the Islamists in Tunisia during the first general elections and in Egypt and elsewhere is not an indication of their popularity, but rather a result of a combination of factors. The most important were the Islamists full mobilization, significant funding from Qatar or Saudi Arabia , the general public low participation in the 2011 elections, the existence of high levels of illiteracy and poverty, and most important of all corrupted capitalism. Add to that the “promise” that Islam is the solution. Many educated segments of society wanted to give the Islamists the opportunity to fulfill their promise. All these factors combined explain why the Islamists won the majority of the seats. All the supporters of the Islamists participated 100% in the elections while the secular parties had no influence over their supporters. In Egypt the situation was worse than in Tunisia.  The poor and illiterate represent around 40% of the population. What kind of free elections can be held under such circumstances? Democracy presumes the existence of political and social awareness and not widespread illiteracy and ignorance.

This paper holds the belief that the core problem leading to what is known as The Arab Spring in Tunis was the situation produced by the Structural Adjustment process that started in 1986 under the pressure of the World Bank. In many cases the application of specific criteria taken from highly industrialized countries and applied to developing countries like Tunis and Egypt as well, leads to breaking down of the social fabric and disequilibrium in the political system. The following facts may explain the reasons for such a conclusion. In order to move towards a “free market” the government of Ben Ali started dismantling the large public sector through a process well-known as “privatization”. In developing countries and due to existing social institutions (like nepotism) and prevailing cultures (which are absent in Industrialized countries) that rule over other practices, the privatization process leads to few hands owning the majority of the sold assets.  Usually the new owners are members of the ruling family and other relatives of the government.

In Tunis the family of Ben Ali and their relatives became the new owners of the most important newly-privatized companies. Corruption became “open” and overall. This development represented a serious setback to government efforts in combating poverty and reducing unemployment as the move away from the public sector aggravated the unemployment problem significantly. The same argument applies to Egypt. Jamal son of Mubarak and other officials in the ruling National Democratic Party divided between themselves the main resources of the country. The underground political movements, especially the Islamists, were eager and ready to benefit from the general dissatisfaction generated by the outcome of the privatization process. This paper holds the belief that corruption and unemployment were the main factors behind the popular uprising that produced the Arab Spring in both Tunisia and Egypt. Actually corruption and unemployment were also the main factors behind the political upheavals also in Libya and Yemen.

Correcting the Mistake: Tunis, Egypt and not Iraq

The Islamists after forming the Government in Tunis and occupying the Parliament in Egypt had to face the real test. They found out that their ideology provides no guidance before real and serious economic issues.  Add to that the social and political consequences of enacting religious-oriented laws in countries that enjoyed secular social relationships for over a century. All that led to a real popular revolution in Egypt that changed the “elected” president and brought down his backward government. As for Tunis that change came directly from the general elections. Both countries are now back to square number one. Political Islam simply failed to pass the first test.

In Iraq Political Islam represented by corrupted political parties and corrupted politicians managed to strengthen their grip on the State’s organs and implanted their loyalists everywhere. The Justice system, Army, Police, the banking system and most importantly the Independent Elections Commission is now fully controlled by the same corrupted parties. Hopes of removing the corrupted political parties looks very remote under such circumstances.

Under such unfavorable circumstances, the people of Iraq, from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, look to Grand Ayatollah Sistani for help. If no action originates from this main religious centre then hopes of moving Iraq forward are completely absent and the status que will continue under different plateforms.