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Archive for the ‘Elections’ Category

During the course of the Arab Spring, we have noted various types of Islamist group emerging into the public sphere.  From the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood and their political party, the FJP, to the newly formed Yemeni Salafist party, the Rashad Union. Muslims of various creeds and affiliations have taken an active part in the political revolutions sweeping the MENA region.

Yet, not all of the Islamists vying for attention belong to parties or established movements.  For some, this is because of a doctrinal aversion to hizbiyya or partisanship; for others, it is simply because they are unaffiliated to any specific theological movement or Islamist grouping.  Khalil al-Anani terms them ‘informal’ Islamists:

“They are not officially affiliated with any Islamist movement. Nor are they keen to establish their own organizations. Ironically, they shunned joining any of the new Islamists parties. Moreover, whereas “formal” Islamists, for example, the MB, ad-Dawa al-Salafiyya, and ex-Jihadists, rushed to formal politics, “informal” Islamists prefer to play outside the official framework.”

Perhaps the archetypal unaffiliated or ‘informal’ Islamist is the Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.  Despite being associated with the Ikhwan, and playing a pivotal role in the initial formation of the Global Muslim Brotherhood Organisation, al-Qaradawi has established a global independent platform for his doctrine of wasatiyya or ‘moderation’ in one’s interpretation of Islam.  Through his appearances on the popular Al Jazeera show Al Sharia wal Hayat, his leadership of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, to the publication of numerous books translated into a multitude of languages, he has been able propagate his ideology to a global audience independently of the Egyptian Brotherhood.

It is the flexibility of operating outside of any formal religious or political organisation that has been a boon for this type of Islamist personality in the wake of the Arab uprisings.  Whilst politico-religious movements such as the Ikhwan and the Salafis have entered parliament, Islamists such as the Egyptian presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail, who bridges the gap between the two, have been left untarnished by any controversial pronouncements made by members of either movement, and have built allegiances that cross traditional class and economic boundaries.

It is worth noting that these types of Islamist only represent a short term threat to the political aspirations of the Brotherhood and the Salafi movement; in the long term, these independent Islamists serve to frame the terms of the political debate along Islamic lines.  They broadly share the same goals as these movements in that they wish to see greater Islamic unity, and to see a prominent role for the sharia in the legal systems of their respective countries.

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Khalil al-Anani argues that, with the entrance of Islamists into the political arena during and after the Arab Spring, “we need to rethink the Islamist question in a manner that transcends the styles of praise or ridicule that typified our approach and shaped our awareness for several decades.”  In making this point he is quite right: Islamists in politics require a more considered analysis than was necessary for purely religious movements, largely excluded from the public square.  For this, we have a few historical examples of how Islamist parties have functioned in elections and (in parliament though not in government) such as the Jamaat-e Islaami in Pakistan.  Fortunately, we now also have contemporary examples from which to draw conclusions in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Kuwait.

Al-Anani makes some important observations about the changes in Islamist discourse wrought by their electioneering and, in the case of the aforementioned countries, especially Egypt, their rise to power:

1) A shift from talking exclusively about religious solutions to practical problems, to engaging with voters through the use of more pragmatic rhetoric attuned to the present conditions.  He cites the example of the MB’s political party, the Freedom and Justice party (FJP – حزب الحرية والعدالة‎ , Ḥizb Al-Ḥurriya wa Al-’Adala), adapting the slogan ‘We bring the good to Egypt’ (نحمل الخير لمصر) as an alternate to the Brotherhood’s previous one of ‘Islam is the solution’ (الإسلام هو الحال).  Some would argue that the FJP are merely there to ‘market’ Ikhwani ideology, hence the adaption or moderation of the language used.

2) A shift from talking in mosques (and at rallies), to debating in parliament.  This involves not just a change in the nature of the issues discussed, but also a shift from sermons and speeches (which are traditionally monologues) to dialogue and debate.  Both spaces also have different customs for behaviour within each of them: not only is speech subject to less restriction in parliament, but it is also has to be accountable to the general public who may watch the debates live on TV or comment on Facebook.  Whilst there are certainly taboos in mosques, there is little or no public scrutiny, except perhaps in the case of the ‘live’ Friday sermon.

3) A shift from religious to secular authority, where religious figures respected for their Islamic knowledge are subjected to careful scrutiny on entering the public sphere.  It remains to be seen how this will affect the public’s perception of and reaction to policy inspired by the Qur’an and Sunna.

4) A shift from the solidarity expressed in private to a rivalry based on each party’s success at implementing its respective policies.  In the case of Egypt, it will be interesting to note the future role that Islam will play in the revised constitution and how this will impact on the relationship between the two largest parties in parliament: the FJP and the Salafist al-Nour party.

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The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have set up a micro-site to cover the upcoming Egyptian parliamentary and presidential elections.  It’s very informative; even if it does sanitise the Brotherhood to a certain extent, and there’s an intriguing interview with Dr Essam el-Arian (the reform-minded Brother much-loved by Western commentators sympathetic to the movement), conducted back in May, posted there.

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The Sunday Telegraph has today published several articles detailing its investigation, in cooperation with Channel 4’s documentary programme Dispatches (which is screened tormorrow, Monday, 1st March 2010 at 8pm), into Islamic Forum Europe, a Jamaat-e Islami front run out of the East London Mosque, and the Labour Party.  I’ve decided to reproduce all the articles here in case they disappear for some reason or another:

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According to reports (عربي English), Dr Muhammad Badie, a veterinarian and self-professed conservative once imprisoned for 9 years, has been elected the 8th Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood.  He replaces Magdi Akef who, in an unprecedented but widely reported move, chose to step down.

Information on Dr Muhammad Badie’s background can be found here.

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Having avoided posting up until now on the Muslim Brotherhood’s much-publicised travails, I’ve decided to do my best to put Magdy Akef’s ‘quasi-resignation’ in context.

Firstly, for a Supreme Guide to retire is unprecedented – they usually pop their clogs (or have them popped for them in the case of the founder, Hasan al-Banna) in situ.  Secondly, Akef had already announced that he would be retiring from his role as the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood.  And thirdly, Egyptian politics is entering a period of exceptional uncertainty: both parliamentary and presidential elections are to be held within the next two years, and, with President Mubarak expected to step down, there will be a new president for the first time in over a quarter of a century.

These are strange times indeed for the Ikhwan as they attempt to manoeuvre in the face of a renewed crackdown on their activities both domestically and internationally, and try to consolidate and improve on the successes they enjoyed in the last parliamentary elections in 2005.

There has been a great deal of speculation surrounding the future of the world’s most powerful Islamic political movement for some time.  Most of that speculation has centred on the future direction of the movement, as the reality of turgid domestic Egyptian politics has dawned on the party’s members.  The furore that surrounded Akef’s supposed resignation seemed to confirm what many analysts were thinking: here was the first outward manifestation of a leadership struggle between younger, more progressive activists and their more conservative co-members.

Akef allegedly clashed with conservatives on the Guidance Council over the appointment of senior member Essam al-Erian, a renowned dove within the organisation.  His nomination came in the wake of the recent death of Muhammad Hilal, a hawkish member of the Guidance Council, which first ignited tensions amongst the leadership.

The direction the Brotherhood takes could have much wider implications: the group is the largest opposition movement in Egypt (with some sources estimating membership at half a million Egyptians), though officially banned. Furthermore, as a pan-Islamic organisation, it is highly influential beyond Egypt’s borders as the father of Islamist movements across the Arab and Muslim world — including the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

But perhaps the two most important developments in this saga, have been the high profile criticism by the influential cleric and sometime Brotherhood ‘spiritual leader’, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, of the decision to reject al-Erian’s candidacy, and the statement released by the MB Youth Wing in response to media storm following Akef’s reported resignation.

Al-Qaradawi, called the decision a ‘betrayal of da’wah, the party and the Ummah one and all’.  However, Dr Mahmoud Ghazlan, a hawkish member of the Guidance Council, in a strongly worded letter to the shaykh retorted, “If you must interfere, then do so as a matter of principal, values and etiquette, and try to put out the flames of conflict.”

For their part, the Youth Wing used their statement to call for unity, to stress their support for the Supreme Guide and announce the holding of ‘youth conference’ some time in the near future:

Letter of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth:

We followed the recent events that have occurred in the Guidance Bureau, so we decided to have a position and opinion to be announced to the group and to the public because we are the sons of this group and we are proud of it and its civilized approach. We have the honor to belong to such a group and we are the most concerned with its progress and strength. We are keen on making it the bridge that our country can use to cross from the atmosphere of tyranny and injustice to that of freedom and progress and we sum our opinion up in this statement:

1 – We declare our appreciation and esteem for our guide and leader, Mohamed Mahdy Akef, and his leadership of the group and appreciate his effort and all the moves to maintain our presence, and the progress he achieved during his term in the Guidance Bureau and we call on him to maintain his active presence at the head of the group until he finishes his term [in January].

2 – We all respect the mechanisms of the shura (Guidance Bureau) and their results, with emphasis on the policy of openness and transparency, where regulations governing the rules of internal procedures are announced, and equality in all situations and not allowing the door for different interpretations and personal interpretations, which negatively affect the group.

3 – The unity and cohesion of our construction is one of the constants that we would not allow to be affected, so we fear that such events would lead us to severe forms of advocacy passed in other countries and therefore the duty of everyone now is to bridge the gap and ensure the safety of the spirit of logical brotherhood and to maintain objectivity away from emotions.

4 – It is not acceptable at all that some people question the guide’s [Akef] respect to shura and democracy, as he was the finest example in this respect when he insisted on changing the old regulations and the internal organization of elections and entrenched this principle. He then asked not to be given the responsibility of heading the group, to leave the opportunity to others.

5 – We call on the leadership to review its internal regulations and to modify it in a practical manner that is commensurate with the nature and requirements of the stage we are going through.

6 – We are stressing the need to improve the media performance of the group, and to make it better than it is now, in order not to repeat the poor performance, and this contradiction that has emerged in the Brotherhood’s media performances to the current events. In a way this has worsened the image of the group! We also stress that the media attaché of the group needs a comprehensive review with the seizure of media statements of the leaders and figures. We also need to determine an official spokesman for the group in order to avoid the conflicts that we saw in these recent events.

7 – We thank all the media, which dealt with professionalism and objectivity to the events with the rejection of attempts by some media that became addicted to harming the Muslim Brotherhood and we hold ourselves responsible for what happened and allowed some others to use distortion and fabrication against the movement.

8 – We confirm that solving this issue should be in a practical and objective manner to ensure non-recurrence of the problem and not to exacerbate the accumulations of it, and we are confident that the leadership is keen on this, like everyone else.

9 – We emphasize that the Muslim Brotherhood is a national Egyptian movement of community-based and public efforts since it was founded by Imam Hassan al-Banna, and is concerned with public issues and all important issues to every Egyptian and everyone who is interested in the moderate civilized Islamic project, so the society should interact with us as the largest popular movement seeking reform and change in Egypt.

10 – We aim that the next period would be the start of a boom in the national movement to meet the expectations of millions of Egyptians who rely on the Muslim Brotherhood and its role in reform and change.

We wish to take this opportunity to announce an important step, in which we wish to please the good of the homeland and of the movement and the project as a whole. Hereby we declare the launch of the first electronic conference for the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood, which will be in the near future and will discuss the most important issues of concern to the group, to present visions aimed at reform and development.

Youth of the Muslim Brotherhood

Dissent, debate, rivalry and resignations are all part and parcel of the democratic process.  That two politicians rarely agree, in spite of the best efforts of spin doctors to create the façade of party unity, is one of the most enduring aspects of party politics; it’s a healthy sign that issues are being debated, compromises are being sought, and policies formulated with input from all sides of the debate.  In the run up to the elections, despite Akef’s claim that the Brotherhood will not field a candidate for the presidency, it will be interesting to see if the movement can adapt, compromise and move forward progressively or whether it remains ossified; wedded to a current of Islamist thought that has gained little for the movement over the last three quarters of a century.

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