The emergence of Islamist parties in the Middle East

Farooq attended the IISS Regional Security Summit: The Manama Dialogue in Bahrain where he represented the Department of Defence. Farooq is a public servant in the Department of Defence's International Policy and Strategy Group focusing on Afghanistan .Farooq studied a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) and a Masters in Counter-Terrorism Studies at Monash University.

 

Abstract

Over the course of a month or so in late 2011, elections in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia empowered Islamist parties in the Middle East, allowing them to govern their respective countries for the very first time in modern history[1]. Islamist partiers, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda, are on the rise, leaving behind them a number of secular parties who are quickly losing support.  These domestic changes will have significant regional implications and the international community more broadly.  The west must look to employ more ambitious political and economic agendas to ensure that they are not ignoring the emerging parties in the Middle East in their engagement. Encouraging these Islamist parties to focus more on democracy and its core values, such as gender equality, is a start.  However, beyond this, the west should focus more on specific issues, such as ensuring that Islamists continue to maintain existing treaties and uphold international human rights standards.  The west should also look to create greater employment opportunities and help establish regular legal frameworks with the immediate focus being on short-term goals that can be implemented within a three to five year period. To do this, western countries must look to build new relations across communities in the Middle East and expand their engagement beyond the select few political actors who have previously supported their own agenda.  This may not decrease the perceived suspicion that exists between the west and Islamist partiers.  But it may improve relations and send a message to Islamist parties that the west is not ignoring them in their dealings with the region. This short paper attempts to briefly outline the rise of Islamist parties in the Middle East since the recent Arab uprising.  It argues that the west and its allies should now look to adopt greater political and economic measures in response to the political changes that have occurred in the Middle East.  The paper also attempts to briefly highlight that the Middle East remains strategically important to Australia, noting Australia’s economic and trade interests and the region’s destablising impact on the global security environment. 

Recommendations

 In the face of a ‘new’ Middle East the west should look to build fresh relations across communities in the region and expand its engagement beyond the select few political actors who have previously supported their agenda.  Some key recommendations regarding how the west should look to engage emerging Islamist parties in the region include:

1.     Continue to encourage Islamist parties to employ greater democratic systems, including in areas of gender equality and human rights;

2.     Build on the existing treaty relationships and encourage Islamist parties to pay greater attention towards the peaceful settlement of international disputes and conflicts; 

3.     Assist emerging Islamist parties establish proper legal frameworks;

4.     Engage local communities across the region and establish new relationships across entire societies rather than a select few political actors;

5.     Continue to build relations with secular parties in the region, ensuring that they are not feeling abandoned by the international community;

6.     Implement short-term projects that can be achieved within a three to five year timeframe;

7.     Create new job opportunities through direct financial assistance to countries in the region; and

8.     Offer policy makers in Arab governments advice on monetary funding and debt management.

Introduction – the rise of Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia

The appointment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed el-Morsi as Egypt’s new President and the electoral victory of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party have ensured that the international community returns to focus on the role of Islamist parties in the Middle East[2].  The concern regarding Islamist actors and their agendas seems real both in the west and in Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt.  Their rise into power has brought many in western countries to question who these movements really are and what they represent.  There is also uncertainty around how the emerging Islamist parties will shape the future of the region and how the west should look to engage them. 

In the long-term, Islamist parties may prove undemocratic even though they may have come into power through arguably fair and impartial democratic elections.  One area of concern is gender equality and the rights and freedoms of women.  In Tunisia, for example, Ennahda (the Islamist group which controls over 40% of the seats in government) has promised to implement greater support for women’s rights.  However, the group’s opposition argues that Ennahda is simply pursuing this agenda to help it win government, and once it has done so, it will gradually adopt more conservative and religious policies[3].

In the case of Egypt and its ruling Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, policy makers in the west, and the United States in particular, are focused on how the group reacts towards Israel.  More broadly, the US now faces new challenges in Egypt as the Islamists there are not more hostile towards the US than the secular parties who are also suspicious of US activity and influence in the region.  Moreover, the Islamist parties are yet to show any signs that indicate a willingness to embrace strategic cooperation with Israel[4].  

The political transition process in Egypt provided further evidence of how the country is deeply divided.  During elections in 2011, the military failed to provide clear guidelines to its citizens whilst it controlled power.  Many months were wasted as various parties engaged in endless debates regarding the sequencing of elections and constitution writing.  When a decision could not be reached, the country’s military was forced to intervene and pick a date for the elections.

The transition process was also muddled by the country’s secular parties, which feared the Islamists and were subsequently unwilling to accept the reality that they were supported by majority of the Egyptians.  Even at the time of writing, protests continue across Egypt.  The secular parties in Egypt may claim that they accept democratic processes, but they appear to be unwilling to accept transfer of political power to an Islamist group.

Divisions appear to be evident not only between the secular and Islamist parties, but also between the Islamist parties themselves.  This is because the emergence of a new political landscape across the Middle East has created an opportunity for Islamist parties to highlight their plans and demonstrate how their views differ from other political parites.  Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood parties, for example, are competing to win votes and credibility amongst the Muslim population.

For many decades Salafi parties had rejected democracy on principle, replacing Sharia law (the rule of God) with that created by man and modernity.  Despite their historic roots, many Salafi groups (such as the al-Nour party) participated in the electoral battle during the Arab uprisings in their attempt to be ‘democratically’ appointed as the governing body in Egypt.  On 20 November 2012, President el-Morsi issued a presidential decree defending him from judicial reviews until a new parliament is elected in a vote expected in early 2013[5].  This is clearly an illustration of the President using his powers to progress his own agenda’s while at the same time ignoring democratic processes.

Challenges for the west in the face of a new Middle East

Western countries continue to push Islamist parties who currently hold strong government positions across the Middle East to follow democratic processes.  The west appears to have no other choice than to accept the democratic elections that were held in countries like Egypt and Tunisia.  Failing to do so could mean that they themselves are rejecting democracy.

Western governments may chose to accept the rise of Islamist parties in the Middle East, but there remain some ongoing challenges that they are likely to face in the region.  It is still unclear how the Islamist parties, such as Al-Naahda and the Muslim Brotherhood, will evolve as they spend more time in power.  The most important issue is their willingness, or un-willingness, to interact with Israel and uphold the peace treaty. 

A further challenge for the west is the conflicting views held between the Islamist parties, who appear to be gaining more support, and the secular factions that have struggled to gather support since the beginning of the Arab spring.  Western nations now face the challenge of either building relations with the democratically elected Islamists groups or showing support towards the marginalised secular parties who they had close ties with prior to the uprising[6]

The US may be the most powerful and important external power in the region, but even the Obama administration’s ability to dictate any political outcomes in the Middle East appears limited.  Nonetheless, the US has ensured that the emerging Islamist parties in the Middle East continue to work with them.  While not going too far ahead, the administration has used established relationships with powerful actors in the region to attempt to shape developments.  This has been predominately evident in the case of Egypt, where America’s military relationship has proven strong[7].

The Obama administration has also indicated that the actions of Islamist parties across the Middle East will determine how the US will liaise with them.  The US appears less focused on the ideologies of Islamist parties and more concerned about how the emerging parties will behave.  During her recent visit to Egypt in November 2012, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said that “what parties call themselves is less important to us (the US) than what they actually do.” [8]  Her visit to Egypt, while a sign of willingness to cooperate with the empowered Muslim Brotherhood, did not hide the fact that the US is in an uncomfortable position.  The US is keen to safeguard its interest in the region through counter-terrorism cooperation and Arab-Israel peace negotiations, but its agenda is at a standstill as the region’s key powerbroker in Egypt remains mired in political turmoil.

In the case of Australia, the Middle East remains strategically important noting Australia’s economic and trade interests and the region’s destablising impact on the global security environment.  In February 2011, then Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, visited Egypt and Tunisia to show Australia’s support towards the newly elected parties in the region.  Mr Rudd’s visit to Egypt followed Australia’s announcement that it would increase its aid to that country to assist the Egyptian government’s democratic transformation. 

More recently, Australian Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, travelled to Egypt in September 2012.  Minister Carr also praised the Muslim Brotherhood’s assistance in brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.  Minister Carr said that “one of the things that stands out is the leadership role of someone who could be a very great figure in the Middle East history indeed and that’s President Mursi of Egypt[9].”  This clearly conveyed the strong support which Australia continues to place on Egypt’s Islamist party, the Muslim brotherhood.  Moving forward, Australia should continue to remain involved in the region and seek to increase dialogue and engagement in niche areas.  As well as broadening relationships with key partners, such as Egypt, Australia should look to gain a greater understanding of regional country perspectives.    

Implementing greater political and economic measures in the Middle East

Western countries will continue to face challenges in the face of an evolving Middle East as Islamist parties continue to grow in stature and power.  A key factor is the lack of strong ties with the Islamist movements that are currently in power in several countries in the region.  To address such deficiencies, the west should prioritise their engagements and policies for the Middle East.

Encouraging Islamist parties to adopt broad ideological agendas endorsing secularism will be ongoing.  For example, the issue of women’s rights and gender equality in the Muslim world has been one area which western countries continue to discuss with their Middle Eastern counterparts.  If foreign actors continue to struggle to influence any change in the region then it may be prudent for them to focus on a few select issues which can be presented not as western impositions but as international standards and behaviour.  The west could also focus on building on the existing treaty relationships, encouraging Islamist parties to pay greater attention towards peaceful settlement of international disputes and conflicts.  

Another area that the west could look to improve on when interacting with Islamist parties in the Middle East is their understanding of diplomacy.  Western actors will need to adopt new diplomatic skills as it will no longer be sufficient for them to depend on established relationships with a small group of elite political actors.  The west will now need to forge new relationships with the emerging Islamist parties and will need to engage with entire societies across the region.  It will no longer be sufficient to push western interests and agendas through a few elite political actors.

Western countries, and the US in particular, cannot ignore the emerging Islamist parties in the Middle East like it has in the past.  These groups must now be included as part of negotiations and peace dealings to the extent possible.  However, a key issue is that many of these Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood have not previously had to make decisions and policies that affect other countries.  This is because up until now these Islamist parties have purely remained focused on winning support among their own societies and within their own borders.  They may have not given much thought to foreign policy or issues affecting international institutions, but being in power in a volatile region that has the attention of the international community means that Islamist parties will have no choice but to respond to wider global issues.

The west must not make the same mistake of ignoring the less powerful parties in the Middle East as it looks to build relations with the emerging Islamist political actors.  It is important that western countries continue to include the secular elite to reassure them that they have not been abandoned.  This would also encourage the secular parties to work with the Islamists on issues relating to regional security and the economy, noting that both these issues are relevant to the two parties.

The emerging Islamist parties who have come into power since the rise of the Arab spring appear to be more receptive to building economic partnerships with western countries[10].  This in turn has created an opportunity for the west to create newly formed economic agendas which can focus either on short or long-term goals.  Given the volatile security situation in the Middle East and the possibility that new political actors could come into power in countries across the region, the international community should look to employ short-term goals which can be implemented in a three to five year timeframe.

The newly formed governments in countries like Egypt and Tunisia regularly face security challenges and they will need to continue to regularly engage with local communities to ensure that levels of violence and disorder decrease.  In addition to the security issue is the challenges posed by high levels of unemployment, which continue to spread angst and uncertainty amongst the general public.  In assisting the Arab governments to address these challenges the international community could help create greater job opportunities by: increasing financial assistance to countries in the region; providing greater advice to Arab policymakers on managing debts; and helping Islamist parties establish legal frameworks for large scale projects[11].   

In the case of Egypt for example, despite the government’s request for a loan of US$4.8 billion from the International Monetary Fund, more funding sources are required to create greater job strategies that can have short-term impacts on the job market.  This is one area in which the international community could look to assist the Egyptian government in the short-term.  Another option could be to provide policymakers across the Middle East technical advice on debt management; this is an area that could have great affect in the Egyptian economy, noting that the domestic banking system in that country is used to finance its high budget deficit.  These options would allow the Egyptian government, and other countries in the Middle East more broadly, to create higher number of job opportunities in the short-term while avoiding the risks of destablising fiscal economic balances across the region[12].

Conclusion

Islamist partiers across the Middle East are continuing to gain support from local communities.  Unlike the emerging Islamist parties such as Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood, the secular parties appear to be losing power and support across the region.  These domestic changes will clearly have implications for the Middle East and the international community more broadly.  Noting the shift in balance of power across the region, the west should now look to employ more ambitious political and economic agendas when dealing with Arab governments.

Western countries need to focus on specific and short-term goals when dealing with countries in the Middle East, noting the volatile and unpredictable security situation in the region.  The immediate focus should be on specific issues, such as ensuring that the new Islamist actors continue to maintain existing treaties and uphold international human rights standards.  The west should look to create greater employment opportunities and help establish regular legal frameworks.  Western countries should also look to build new relations across communities in the Middle East and expand its engagement beyond the select few political actors who have previously supported their agenda.  This may not decrease the perceived suspicion that exists between the west and Islamist partier, but is should improve relations and send a message to Islamist parties that the west is not ignoring them in their dealings with the region.

In the case of Australia, the Middle East is a strategically important region, noting Australia’s economic and trade interests and the Middle East’s destablising impact on the global security environment.  Australia should continue to remain involved in the region and seek to increase dialogue and engagement in niche areas.

Bibliography

Arieff, A 2012, ‘Change in the Middle East: Implications for US Policy’, Congressional Research Service, www.crs.gov.

Khorrami, N 2012, ‘The Rise of Islamist Parties in the Middle East and North Africa’, Defence Viewpoints, http://www.defenceviewpoints.co.uk.

Kitchen, N 2012, ‘ After the Arab Spring: power shift in the Middle East?: the contradictions of hegemony: the United States and the Arab Spring’, The London School of Economic and Political Science, May edition.

Klapper, B 2012, ‘Clinton to Egypt military: work with Islamists’, The Times of Israel,

http://www.timesofisrael.com/writers/bradley-klapper/.

Lynch, M 2012, ‘Islamists in a Changing Middle East’, Foreign Policy, http://lynch.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/07/08/islamists_in_a_changing_middle_east

Perry, T 2004, ‘Egypt’s President Morsi faces judicial revolt over decree’, The Vancouver Sun, http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Egypt+President+Morsi+faces+judicial+revolt+over+decree/7606685/story.html.

Saif, I and Rumman, M 2012, ‘The Economic Agenda of the Islamist Parties’, Carnegie paper, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May Edition.

Ottoway, M 2012, in ‘Emerging Order in the Middle East’, Carnegie Policy Outlook, May 2012 Edition.

Ulgen, S 2012, in ‘Emerging Order in the Middle East’, Carnegie Policy Outlook, May 2012 Edition.

Wroe, D 2012, ‘Carr praises Egypt for role in peace’, The Age, http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/political-news/carr-praises-egypt-for-role-in--peace-20121122-29ruo.html.

[1] N. Khorrami 2012, ‘The Rise of Islamist Parties in the Middle East and North Africa.’

[2] M. Lynch 2012, ‘Islamists in a Changing Middle East.’

[3] A. Arieff 2012, ‘Change in the Middle East: Implications for US Policy.’

[4] Ibid Arieff 2012.

[5] T. Perry 2012, ‘Egypt’s President Morsi faces judicial revolt over decree’.

[6] In her essay on emerging powers in the Middle East, Marina Ottoway references such groups as the Wafd government and the regimes of Gamel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

[7] N. Kitchen 2012, ‘ After the Arab Spring: power shift in the Middle East? The contraditions of hegemony: the US and Arab spring.

[8] B. Klapper 2012, Clinton to Egypt military: work with Islamists.

[9] D. Wroe 2012, Carr Praises Egypt for Role in Peace.

[10] Ibid M. Ottoway 2012.

[11] S. Ulgen 2012, Emerging Order in the Middle East.

[12] Ibid Ulgen 2012.  For more on these issues see I. Saif and M. Rumman 2012, The Economic Agenda of the Islamist Parties.