Debate over blend of faith, democracy
Trudy Rubin / gulftoday.ae / First published June 12 (author)
Given the triumph of religious parties in parliamentary elections in Tunisia and Egypt, and given the lead role taken by Islamists in Libya, Yemen, and in the Syrian opposition, Arab human rights activists have become increasingly nervous that their revolution will be hijacked.
Nowhere is that debate more intense than in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate is one of two finalists in presidential runoff election set for June 15-16.
The Brotherhood already won 47 per cent of the parliamentary seats in November; it’s success stems from its tight organisation and loyal core of supporters.
Yet it is far too soon to assume that the new Arab politics is destined to be shaped only by religious parties.
Already, in the year since the Arab revolts began, the pushback to religious domination of politics has begun.
At the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, a project of the Brookings Institution and the government of Qatar, the tensions between religion and politics were a hot topic.
One revealing session featured the leader of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, Rashid Ghannouchi. He described why, after his party’s victory it chose not to seek revision of Article I of Tunisia’s current constitution — a change that would have made Muslim sharia law the source of the country’s legal code.
Ennahda decided to accept the Article I language stating that Tunisa’s religion is Islam. Its leaders recognised that many Tunisians differ with Ennahda over referencing sharia and fear its misuse. So the party opted for consensus. Instead of pushing for Islamisation, it agreed to implement Islamic values by developing a modern state.
“We fought for freedom not sharia law,” Ghannouchi told the Tunisian press.
What Ghannouchi grasps is this: Arab populations may be traditionally religious, but their prime concerns are honest governance, more jobs, and a better standard of living — not sharia. (Recent polls have shown this to be true in Egypt.) He rightly notes: “We are in dire need to fight corruption.” That is the basis on which Ennahda will be judged.
Of course, Tunisia has a more European orientation and a better educated population than Egypt. Neila Charchour Hachicha, a co-founder of Tunisia’s secular Afek Tounes party, told me in Doha, “Ennahda is completely different from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Ennahda understands republican values.”
Yet, even if Tunisia is unique, Ennahda provides an Arab model of Islamist openness that others in the region can reference, and one that stands in sharp contrast to developments in Egypt.
In Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood’s plunge into electoral politics, after decades spent underground, has exposed it to the glare of public scrutiny and criticism.
The Brotherhood faces intense scepticism from distinguished Egyptian liberals like Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a courageous fighter for democracy who spent two years in prison under Hosni Murarak’s regime.
“Are the Muslim Brothers worshipping themselves more than God and nation?” he demanded in a recent article in the journal of his Ibn Khaldun Center. His point: The Brotherhood was more concerned about cementing its own power than working for Egypt.