4
Sep

By Daoud Kuttab

ps

Throughout the post-colonial period, Arab countries have consistently failed to produce an efficient – let alone democratic – system of government. Now, after a half-century of competition between military or royal dictatorships and militant Islamist regimes, many Arabs are again seeking a “third way” – a path toward a credible form of representative democracy. But will their efforts prove as futile now as they have in the past?

The Middle East – named for its geographic position between Europe and East Asia – was under Ottoman rule for 400 years before the Allied powers, after defeating the Ottomans in World War I, partitioned the region into distinct political units that, under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, fell within spheres of influence carved out by the United Kingdom and France. But, in response to these new divisions, an Arab awakening – shaped by pan-Arabism and support for Palestine – was occurring.

Charismatic young military rulers-turned-dictators like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad used these popular causes to win public support. But their failure to deliver better lives to their citizens, together with the discrediting of left-wing ideologies following the Soviet Union’s collapse, fueled the rise of a rival movement: political Islam.

The Muslim Brotherhood – established in the Egyptian town of Ismailia in 1928 and political Islam’s oldest, best organized, and most widespread proponent – was (and is) despised by both secular Arabs and Arab monarchies. Indeed, secular dictators have worked to suppress the Brothers at every turn – often violently, as when Assad ruthlessly crushed a Brotherhood-led uprising in Hama in 1982.

Forced to operate clandestinely, the Brotherhood built its support base with a social agenda that targeted the needs of the poor, while consistently reinforcing its Islamic ties, even using the compulsory zakat (annual financial contribution to religious causes) to build up its social network. The Brothers, with the help of a conservative society and the mosques, were prepared to seize power whenever the opportunity arose.

Another Islamist movement, Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front, almost had such an opportunity in 1991, when it won the first round of a general election. But the military prevented its victory by canceling the second round, triggering a brutal eight-year civil war in which an estimated 200,000 people died. Palestine’s Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood, succeeded at the ballot box in 2006, but has since failed to deliver credible governance. Read more…

Daoud Kuttab is a former professor at Princeton University and the founder and former director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah.

As published in www.project-syndicate.org on September 4, 2013.

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