About Jordanian and Egyptian elections, the Muslim Brotherhood and methodology: integration, a key word?

di Alice Marziali

This article wants to analyze the recent elections held in Jordan and in Egypt and to assess their implication on the debate concerning Islamist parties’ participation to the electoral game. I will nonetheless start with something which seems completely unrelated, but it is instead crucial: what a friend of mine, a Jordanian mother, wife, and Master’s student told me at a Saturday lunch, in front of a huge plate of Mensaaf. In the middle of the discussion, which took place in the intimacy of a house kitchen, I was told something more inspiring and interesting than anything in any official interview. She said: «Aliscia, listen to me: every Jordanian who aspires to a high political and social position has to pretend to be liberal. But, in reality, very few really are, and no one when it comes to women and sex».

This is not a banal statement: it shows indirectly how much the over-discussed Islam’s compatibility with democracy is wrong in its formulation. First of all, the problem is not about Islam as a whole, as there is not one unique Islam. In politics, this mainstream, conservative interpretation of Islam is not only expressed by Islamic movements. At the same way, among people, conservatism is a social standing more than a purely political matter. In fact, it is shared both by those governments that exclude Islamic movements, and by parts of these Islamic movements which often experience an even harsher internal debate.

The separation of political Islam and its social and cultural expression made by Olivier Roy, inter alia, has been overcome by different and more comprehensive approaches[1]. For exemple, Atzori wrote a very interesting analysis trying to apply the Gramscian concept of cultural hegemony to the Muslim Brotherhood strategy. He started from the consideration of the state as an integral entity, in a Gramscian meaning, and analyzed how the state, lacking an alternative hegemonic source of legitimacy, reacted with a counter-hegemonic project aimed at the reislamization of the society[2]. Indeed, between the state and the Islamic movement there is not a real antagonism about standards and values considered anti-democratic by the Western societies as, for example, the role of women and minorities. Everything is hidden behind one interpretation of Islam shared by both the government and the Islamic movements. This is showed by my friend’s words about Jordan, by the reislamization politics carried out by Mubarak’s “secular” regime in the past years, and by the fact that both the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan and the Alaouite one in Morocco claim the Prophet’s descent as indispensable source of legitimacy.

To this regard, the case of Saudi Arabia is even more extreme. There, the Saoud familiar and private power is based on the allegiance with the radical Wahabi sect, and it is now competing for its legitimacy against Al Qaeda, one of the most perverse products of exclusion. Therefore, this is not a clash of values and to exclude the Islamic movements from the elections and from the so-called transition to democracy on the basis of their lack of democracy is clearly instrumental. True, the concept of democracy can be questioned as being too broad, over-stretched and determined by different political contexts, but it should be possible to define it as the equal opportunity to access the power. Unfortunately, not even this condition is present in the Arab states’ transition processes.

Despite this, if we consider democracy in a mere procedural meaning, within the political liberalization trend started by many Arabic countries, Jordan in primis in 1989, the Islamic movements showed their willingness to enter in the political competition, respecting the rules. Moreover, once excluded or disadvantaged by the lack of real free and fair competition, they become the core of the opposition, claiming a real and meaningful openness.

The recent elections in Jordan and Egypt showed in a different way how the exclusivist stand of both governments cannot be easily maintained, especially given the political challenges of the region and the willingness of Amman and Cairo to remain the major pro-Western pillars. The Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood created in 1992, chose to boycott the 9th November election in Jordan[3]. This strategy clearly enlightened the problems of the Jordanian transition, despite superficial analysis which labelled Jordan to be the «Canada of the Middle East»[4]. The boycott is the result of a fracture between the two factions inside the movement, the hawks and the doves, the extremists and the moderates. Furthermore, this exclusion is also irremediably linked to the contestation of the electoral law, issued as temporary in 1993 in order to counter the growing influence of the Islamic party[5]. This law, even though is based on the principle one man one vote, over-represents the rural districts, where loyalists traditionally live, and under-represents the urban ones, in which the Islamists are strong. Finally, the boycott choice should be understood also as the result of a confrontational atmosphere between the government and the Islamic movement, which, in 2007, brought to the nationalization of the Islamic Charity Center, the historic source of power and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Egypt, on the contrary, the Brotherhood – which is not officially legal but nonetheless allowed to enter in a restricted electoral competition – chose to participate in the election despite the denunciation of its lack of freedom. The result of the first ballot the 28th of November in which the Brotherhood did not win any seat despite having previously held 20% of the seats of Parliament, led it to boycott the second round, protesting against the manipulation of the voting process[6]. More than a setback in the political liberalization, these elections show how the confrontation between governments and the opposition movements committed to non-violent and legal means of protest has negative consequences on the stability of the countries.

Their exclusion doesn’t mean, on the other hand, that a moderate Islamic movement should claim the monopoly of the mainstream Islamic discourse, or that it should be the only one to represent the willingness of the Arab people to promote political reforms. Another plausible understanding of Islam exists: an interpretation which leaves space to the autonomy of the politics without underestimating the importance of the religion in all the social and political aspects.

This approach is really close to the Bayat definition of post-Islamism, marrying Islam with «individual choice and freedom, individual choice and modernity»[7]. The Egyptian Nasir Abu Zayd, who sadly passed away few months ago, created an Islamic democratic hermeneutics: his interpretation is one of the most important and effective theoretical bases for a more balanced understanding of Islam[8].

Hence, methodology counts. To promote and to enhance a non-simplistic understanding of the Islamist movement we have to reject the essentialist theories about Islam, which tend to illustrate it as a monolith intrinsically and a-historically bad or good, as well as some social and economic theories which refuse any cultural and ideological variables in their explanations.

It is necessary to move towards an integrated approach based on the historical contextualization of the object of the research through interpretation, as Salwa Ismail in Rethinking Islamist Politics suggested[9]. The analysis of the socio-economic factors reflects the broader necessity to conjugate material factors to the crucial role of ideas, identities, culture and religion, by studying their interaction and their construction and reconstruction through interpretation. Integration is thus the only way in which we could be able to abide by the complexity of the Islamist movements, and to avoid any easy and dangerous simplifications[10].


[1] See Roy O., The failure of political Islam, Harvard, Harvard University Press, 1994.

[2] See Atzori D., Sulla dialettica tra Islamismo e capitalismo, Nuova Informazione Biliografica, Anno VII, N.4, Ottobre-Dicembre 2010 and I Fratelli Musulmani in Giordania, in Massimo Campanini e Karim Mezran (a cura di), I Fratelli Musulmani nel mondo contemporaneo, Torino, Utet, 2010b.

[3] See Jordan loyalists sweep election, Al Jazeera International, 10 November 2010.

[4] See Judging by turnout, The Economist, 4 November 2010.

[5] In the 1989 parliamentary elections, the first free elections held in the history of Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood got a very positive result, gaining 22 seats out of 80.

[6] See Hamzawy A., Dunne M., Brotherhood enters elections in a weakened state, Carnegie commentary, November 15, 2010 (http://carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=41934&lang=en) and Hamzawy A., Egypt’s legitimacy crisis in the aftermath of flave elections, Carnegie commentary, December 2, 2010 (http://carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=42067&lang=en).

[7] See Bayat A., Making Islam Democratic. Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2007, p. 11.

[8] In this regard, see Abu Zayd N. Rethinking the Qu’ran: towards a humanistic hermeneutics, Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies, 2004.

[9] See Ismail S. Rethinking Islamist Politics: Culture, the State and Islamism, New York, I.B. Tauris & Co, 2006.

[10] See Atzori D., Sulla dialettica tra Islamismo e capitalismo, op. cit.

 

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