Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Islamists vs. Islamists: a positive for Egypt?

By Ali Ezzatyar

When purported Islamists in the Sinai brazenly massacred Egyptian border guards and broke through the Israeli border, it was difficult to interpret the event as anything but catastrophic. The attacks seemed to add some substance to fears of a new Islamist Egypt, the primary trepidation of many since the beginning of the uprisings in Tahrir square. Perhaps, though, this all presents an opportunity. The world only need to look at its most recent mistakes.

In the debate surrounding Islam, Islamism, and government, there is a critical question that remains to be answered. Does power moderate? There is little reliable data on the subject, since movements advocating for Islamic governments rarely win power; when they do, they are usually sabotaged.

In Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) came to power in the early '90s through free and fair elections. This represented the only hiatus from government control for the revolutionary FLN, which lead Algeria since its independence (and continues to do so today). The FIS openly called into question the democratic process that brought them to power, asserting instead that the rule of God was superior to the rule of man. Citing the threat to the democratic process that the FIS posed, the Algerian military annulled the electoral process after only two months, driving the FIS underground and Algeria into a bloody civil war that decimated the country.

At the time, many advocated for the FLN and the military to respect the results of a fair electoral process. The argument was made that, if the FIS lead government failed to do things like pick up the trash regularly, ordinary Algerians would regret their choice and ultimately pressure them to change. The experiment never had the opportunity to play itself out.

The more recent and very relevant example is on Egypt and Israel's own doorstep. The Palestinian territories had their first region wide democratic elections in 2006 that pitted Hamas, the Islamist party, against Fatah, Palestine's equivalent of China's Communist Party. Hamas, who still has not recognized the legitimacy of the state of Israel, won a majority. The international community did not know how to react. While they had advocated for democracy and reform in the Palestinian territories, they had trouble reconciling that with the result of the popular vote. As a result, most security council countries acquiesced to Israel's response of effectively annulling the results of that election and sidelining Hamas from any genuine government of the territories.

This was an unfortunate outcome. In that case, there was immediate evidence of Hamas' recognition that they needed to abandon their anti-Israel idealism since they had been transformed from a revolutionary, anti-government movement, to the majority in parliament. Behind the scenes negotiations and meetings revealed that Hamas would even negotiate directly with Israel. Israel and the United States, however, declared Hamas' vocal non-recognition of Israel as a non-starter. Hamas was ejected from the driver's seat rather arbitrarily. Like with the FIS in Algeria, in Palestine, no quantifiable evolution in the political conflict, or the democratic process, has resulted since. Circumvention of the democratic process at the expense of Islamists does not seem to be working.

The Muslim Brotherhood's election in Egypt incited predictions of horror, likening Egypt's future to that of Iran's. As with our other examples, these fears have allowed traditional parties to exercise their influence and maintain their authoritarianism with impunity. Take the dismissal of Egypt's democratically elected, Islamist parliament.

Enter the conflict in the Sinai. The new Islamist presidency in Egypt, contrary to what anyone could have guessed, is locked in a battle with none other than Islamists in the Sinai. Mohamed Morsi has been forced to crack down on the alleged Islamic militants with force, both rhetorically, and militarily (to the extent his limited power allows). The primary reason for this is the obvious necessity to maintain control within Egypt’s borders and prevent a broader conflict with Israel.

But there are other factors at play that are important to note. Firstly, the president of a party whose members vowed to sever ties with Israel as an election platform is now seemingly cooperating closely with Israel. The Israelis are allowing Egypt to perform military sorties in the Sinai for the first time since 1973, despite a peace treaty explicitly outlawing such activities. Israeli politicians have characterized Egypt’s behavior as "positive." Out of catastrophe has grown unexpected collusion of the highest order.

Ultimately, anti government Islamic militancy has forced the new persident's hand in a way nobody, perhaps even Morsi himself, would have imagined. Given the suspicion surrounding his presidency, and the flagrant nature of the attacks in the Sinai and Israel, he had little choice. In essence, power for the Muslim Brotherhood has obliged them to act as any government would have in a similar scenario: crack down on militants that undermine your legitimacy and authority. With the unexpected killing of Egyptian border guards by these militants, an inevitability has surfaced of the sort that the FIS and Hamas never had the opportunity to witness: Power seems to be moderating. But it is more complicated than the events of one week. Sustaining this transition takes effort from everyone.

(Part 2 later in the week.)

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