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ISLAMIST THREAT IS EXAGGERATED
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
December 5, 2007

Is the Greater Middle East region ready for reforms designed to broaden the decision-making base of the state? The question has been at the heart of a debate triggered in 2002 when the Bush administration launched its plans for the region. Since then, the plan itself has been put on the backburner. But the debate continues.

One view is that almost none of the region's 30 states is ready for a political system based on achieving power through elections.

Another view is that almost any free and fair election in the region would bring to power undemocratic forces operating in the name of religion. The conclusion is that, in the Middle East, the status quo is the best option.

Facts, however paint a different picture.

For example, in Jordan's latest general election, held last month, the radical Islamic Action Front (IAF) suffered a rout.

The IAF's share of the votes fell to five per cent from almost 15 per cent in the elections four years ago. The group, linked with the Muslim Brotherhood movement, managed to keep only six of its 17 seats in the National Assembly (parliament.) Its independent allies won no seats.

As expected, the IAF accused officials of fraud designed to organise "an electoral massacre of pious candidates".

However, international observers, including Arab and European personalities, rate the polls as "reasonably clean". In any case, the IAF has not lodged any formal complaint about the results.

The Islamists' defeat in the Jordanian elections confirms a trend that started years ago. Conventional wisdom was that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and lack of progress in the Israel-Palestine conflict, provide radical Islamists with a springboard from which to seize power through elections.

Argument

Some analysts in the West used that prospect as an argument against the Bush Doctrine of democratisation in the Middle East. They argued that Muslims, Arabs in particular, were not ready for democracy, and that elections would only translate into victory for hard-line Islamists.

However, facts depict a different reality.

So far, no Islamist party has managed to win a majority of the popular vote in any of the Muslim countries where reasonably clean elections are held. If anything, the Islamist share of the votes has been declining across the board.

In Malaysia, the Islamists have never crossed beyond the 11 per cent share of the popular vote. In Indonesia, the various Islamist groups have never collected more than 17 per cent.

The Islamists' share of the popular vote in Bangladesh declined from an all-time high of 11 per cent in the 1980s to around seven per cent in the late 1990s.

In Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the 2006 general election with 44 per cent of the votes, far short of the "crushing wave of support" it had promised.

Even then, it was clear that at least some of those who run on a Hamas ticket did not share its radical Islamist ideology. Despite years of misrule and corruption, Fatah, Hamas' secularist rival, won 42 per cent of the popular vote.

In Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won two successive general elections, the latest in July 2007, with 44 per cent of the popular vote. Even then, AKP leaders go out of their way to insist that the party "has nothing to do with religion".

"We are a modern, conservative, European-style party," AKP leader and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, likes to repeat at every opportunity.

In last July's general election, the AKP lost 23 seats and, with it, its two-third majority in the Grand National Assembly (parliament).

AKP's success in Turkey inspired Moroccan Islamists to create a similar outfit called Party of Justice and Development (PDJ). The PDJ sought support from AKP "experts" to prepare for last September's general election in Morocco.

And, yet, when the votes were counted, the PJD collected just over 10 per cent of the popular vote to win 46 of the 325 seats.

Islamists have done no better in neighbouring Algeria.

In the latest general election, held in May 2007, the two Islamist parties, Movement for a Peaceful Society (HMS) and Algerian Awakening (An Nahda) won just over 12 per cent of the popular vote.

In Yemen, possibly one of the Arab states where the culture of democracy has struck the deepest roots, elections in the past 20 years have shown support for Islamists to stand at around 25 per cent of the popular vote. In the last general election in 2003, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) won 22 per cent.

Kuwait is another Arab country where holding reasonably fair elections has become part of the culture. In the general election last year, a well-funded and sophisticated Islamist bloc collected 27 per cent of the votes and won 17 of the 50 seats in the National Assembly.

In Lebanon's last general election in 2005, the two Islamist parties, Hezbollah (Party of God) and Amal (Hope) collected 21 per cent of the popular vote to win 28 of the 128 seats in the parliament.

And, this despite massive financial and propaganda support from Iran and electoral pacts with a Christian political bloc led by the pro-Tehran ex-General Michel Aoun.

Most serious

Many observers do not regard Egypt's elections as free and fair enough to use as a basis for political analysis.

Nevertheless, the latest general election, held in 2005, can be regarded as the most serious held there since the 1940s, if only because the Islamist opposition was allowed to field candidates and campaign publicly.

In the event, however, the Muslim Brotherhood candidates collected just under 20 per cent of the popular vote.

Afghanistan and Iraq have held a series of elections since the fall of the Taliban in Kabul and the Ba'ath in Baghdad. By all standards, these have been generally free and fair elections, and thus valid tests of the public mood.

In Afghanistan, Islamist groups, including former members of the Taliban, have managed to win around 11 per cent of the popular vote on the average.

The picture in Iraq is more complicated because voters have been faced with bloc lists that hide the identity of political parties behind a blanket ethnic and/or sectarian identity.

Only the next general election in 2009 could reveal the true strength of the political parties because it would not be contested based on bloc lists.

Frequent opinion polls, however, show that support for avowedly Islamist parties, both Shiite and Sunni, does not exceed 35 per cent of the popular vote.

It may take years, if not decades, for the current evolutionary trend in the politics of the Muslim countries to fully assert itself. But one thing is clear: fear of propelling radical Islamists into positions of power should not trump attempts at involving larger sections of society in decision-making.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.

 

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