Egypt votes for a new president in exactly one month, the remarkable culmination of a popular uprising that, with a lot of help from the country’s military, removed the leader of the most populous Arab country and took a big step toward real democracy.
Last week, the country’s electoral commission retreated from that step, voting on their own to bar three prominent candidates from running; two of them were leading Islamist figures. It would appear the country’s remaining powers-that-be got cold feet and want to keep the next president less of an Islamist.
It’s too late, however, to put the genie back in the bottle.
While they didn’t initially take part in last year’s popular uprisings in the Arab world, one by one, the region’s Islamist parties, especially those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic resistance movement that started in Egypt in 1928, came to the fore in each and every country that rose against its non-democratic leaders.
The original protesters – many of them young, secular democrats – didn’t have a long-term political view, but the Islamists did. In many cases the Brotherhood or its local variation, exploited political apathy. “We never thought we’d succeed in getting rid of Mubarak,” admitted a young Egyptian activist. “We hadn’t prepared for the day after.”
In Tunisia, the Ennahda (Islamic Renaissance) Party, and in Egypt, the Brotherhood’s Justice and Reform Party were well organized, having toiled in the shadows for decades, and knew how to get people out to vote. They also benefited from overall low voter turnouts. In Tunisia, only 40 per cent of the people voted in October’s historic election; in Egypt just 41 per cent cast ballots in December and January.
It was small wonder that the Islamists won a plurality of the seats in both countries’ new parliaments.
Whether their political party is known as Justice and Reform in Egypt, Reform and Change (as it is in the Palestinian Territories), the Islamic Action Front (Jordan) or the Islamic Renaissance Party (Tunisia) this moment in Arab history is all about the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement that has spawned all kinds of Islamist resistance groups.
Years ago, the Brotherhood in Egypt eschewed violence and has been playing a waiting game ever since. The main Islamist parties across the crescent of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean followed suit. Their form of nonviolent popular resistance in the face of the regimes’ armed forces drew the world’s admiration last year and emerged victorious in several states.
This moment also is about the Brotherhood’s great benefactor, Qatar, the tiny but rich Persian Gulf state that has sought, successfully, to influence the outcome in most of the Arab uprisings.
In Tunisia, it supported the now governing Ennahda Party, even when the party was in exile, and the new Tunisian government’s foreign minister is a former senior executive of al-Jazeera, Qatar’s popular and influential television network. Qatar now has pledged $500-million to help Tunisia’s economy.
In Libya, it was Qatar that led the attack against the Moammar Gadhafi regime, prodding the Arab League and NATO to launch military actions against the regime. Today, Qatar is offering financial assistance to several of Libya’s political movements, almost all of which are Islamist.
In Syria, it is Qatar that is driving the Arab League initiative against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, cajoling Western powers into supplying the opposition with money for weapons, even threatening to put Arab troops into the fight.
Its long-time partner in Syria is the opposition’s largest single group: the Muslim Brotherhood. Whatever happens in the current Syrian civil war, the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge stronger and more credible than before. If genuine elections are held, the Brotherhood’s political party will almost certainly take the largest share of the vote.
In Egypt, Qatar has been part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s great success, helping with funding, with coverage on al-Jazeera, and through the preaching of the exiled Egyptian cleric, Yousef al-Qaradawi, who lives in Qatar and broadcasts his popular message of religion and resistance across the region every week on al-Jazeera.
It is a potent combination.
“This is Qatar’s moment in Arab history,” said Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at the American University of Cairo. “It’s moving into the political vacuum left by countries such as Egypt and Iraq.”
“Qatar is a country without ideology,” said Gabriel Tabarani, author of In Jihad's New Heartlands: How The West Has Failed To Contain Islamic Fundamentalism. “Its leaders know that the Islamists are the new power in the Arab world.”