Fear and belittlement: Reactions to Islamism and Islamists in the Arab Spring

November 4, 2011 3:32 pm0 commentsViews:

Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are all likely to see the advent of a politics guided by the hands of elected Islamism in the immediate future and yet many still refuse to take its proponents seriously, hence many are surprised once their popularity becomes manifest. This is no Western fuelled anti-Islamic conspiracy. Rather it is borne out of flawed assumptions about the nature of Arab uprisings, disproportionate media coverage inadvertently exaggerating particular political stances and a refusal to consider Islamism on a level playing field by its competitors.

Islamism and revolutionary politics in Egypt

Political forces at the heart of Egypt’s revolution have largely consisted of liberals and the majority of the left. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood to come out in force in the early stages of the revolutions consequently turned many of those at the core of events against them. However, Egypt’s revolutionaries have endured an increasingly tense relationship with the Egyptian public as the dwindling numbers at Tahrir Sq protests have shown. It is not that Egyptians no longer support the changing of status quo, but that many revolutionaries are pressing on with the type of frantic and impatient revolution which it is clear many do not support. Indeed this has only served to increase the popularity of the Brotherhood who refrained from many sit-ins and protests which gradually irked many. The fundamental difference is that whilst Tahrir Square’s leftist and liberal dominated activists are seeking a swift transformation akin to 1917 Russia, the Brotherhood are in favour of a more gradual transformation akin to that Syed Qutb wrote about. The latter view is apparently much more in touch with the Egyptian populace and this should be no surprise considering the Brotherhood have been interwoven in Egyptian society since 1928.

However because of the media dominance, social and broadcast, of the more liberal and leftist activists there is an increasing feel that Egypt’s revolution has failed. And yet, as in Tunisia, the swift flight of the figurehead has proved symbolic enough to thankfully suppress the inevitable outbreak of war if, as in Syria and Libya, they had remained. There is of course much left to be done, but the people are clearly not in favour of a type of revolution entirely absent of stability and overwrought with violence and destruction. The increasing conceptual gap between some of Egypt’s activists and its public is symbolised by the case of Mikael Nabil. Like the wider revolution itself, his plight is one of justice and basic human freedom. However his method of a hunger strike, in a country where streets are heaving with beggars and food prices remain high, is an alienating one.

Politically, opposition to Islamism has been manifest through a tendency to patronize the Islamists and to sideline Islamism as a serious political force worthy of consideration in a new era of democracy. The more traditional fear-mongering seen in the West promotes the idea that Islamists should not take power, because their ideology poses a threat to notions of democracy and liberty. However the belittlement maintains that Islamists will not grasp power, because Arabs are tending towards notions of democracy and liberty erroneously believed to be entirely distinct from Islamism.

Famously, the Muslim Brotherhood has been described on numerous occasions as the most organised political force in Egypt. This initially prompted the Western media to sit up and pay attention just as one might upon hearing a serial killer had just been released from a nearby prison. However this became the method by the Brotherhood’s rivals attempted to de-legitimise and dismiss them. Essentially it promoted the view that the only reason to take the Brotherhood seriously as a political force was their organisation and infrastructure, not the fact that real people might actually support them or their ideology. This view is epitomized by the unintentionally comical article by Hoda Osman, who is worryingly the President of the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalist Association, in the Huffington Post this week. She writes “It is becoming clear that Islamist parties cannot be ignored or sidelined anymore. They will play a major role in politics, at least in the near future, and the people of those countries along with the world need to acknowledge it.” Who is it that has ignored an organisation which has existed in Egypt for nearly eight decades, has consistently opposed successive dictators from the time of Nasser and under oppressive conditions continuously offered a range of services to ordinary Egyptians? This is essentially a post-revolution narrative of Islamism which treats Egyptian politics as dating back only as far as the start of the uprising. Anyone with even a tiny grasp of Egyptian politics prior to the revolution would not realise only in October 2011 that the Muslim Brotherhood might need to be taken seriously as a political force.

The passing Islamism of Tunisia

The same level of flawed analysis is evident in the early treatment of el-Nahda’s success in the Tunisian elections. The Islamists there have not been subject to the same level of belittlement, instead receiving extensive media coverage, however it is clear that many are struggling to come to terms with Arabs having democracy and electing an Islamist party.

Many analysts and commentators have dipped as low as to suggest that purely because many of Nahda’s members were tortured under Ben Ali, Tunisians are literally giving them the sympathy vote. This attempt to explain the popularity and success of Tunisia’s Islamists engenders the age old theory of irrationality espoused by orientalists. It suggests that those who voted for al-Nahdha voted not rationally but emotionally unlike in the ridiculously partisan and ideologically wrought state of democracy in the U.S . This is in part the fault of the short-termism of media coverage which has largely ignored Tunisia’s revolution until a week before elections. It is little surprise then that Aridha Chabiya, which currently stands in fourth (previously third until 9 seats were taken away by the electoral commission), has been entirely ignored by the media. Perhaps it has not run the most high profile campaign, but when the fourth most popular party is completely absent from many medium’s list of key parties a few days before the elections, serious questions have to be raised about the assumptions media coverage of the Arab Spring is operating on.

These kind of flawed assumptions have led many to the conclusion that this is but a ‘stage’ of Islamism and soon enough the Arabs will evolve to understand democracy properly and vote for actual political parties.

Ironically, it was the Nahda’s opponents who cynically attempted to manipulate emotions by stoking up fear of Islamism. Their failure to do so is a great credit to the Tunisian people and a positive indicator that Fox News will never command a strong following in Tunisia.

Despite decades of secular and sectarian dictatorship, still many fret over Islamism as if its prominence is only a sign of its organisation and funding rather than the prominence of Islam in Muslim societies. Secularist rule, as Arabs are all too aware, is capable of the oppressive and undemocratic trend often attributed exclusively to Islamic regimes. The fear for Islamism’s critics is that it will emerge into a one time election scenario, but again there is nothing to suggest any other ideological party has not the potential to do so. Unlike in the West, where popular protest has almost become an exercise in futility, regardless of what ideology rules the land Arabs have shown they will no longer tolerate undemocratic politics, whether Islamic or Secularist, and this is their Democracy.

Nour Bakr

Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East

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