Whither Egypt?

G_Achcar_S1 Gilbert Achcar and Farooq Sulehria in ZNet [h/t: Adam Shatz]:

The Western media are hinting at the fact that democracy in the Middle East would lead to an Islamic fundamentalist takeover. We have seen the triumphal return of Rached Ghannouchi to Tunisia after long years in exile. The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to win fair elections in Egypt. What is your comment on that?

I would turn the whole question around. I would say that it is the lack of democracy that led religious fundamentalist forces to occupy such a space. Repression and the lack of political freedoms reduced considerably the possibility for left-wing, working-class and feminist movements to develop in an environment of worsening social injustice and economic degradation. In such conditions, the easiest venue for the expression of mass protest turns out to be the one that uses the most readily and openly available channels. That's how the opposition got dominated by forces adhering to religious ideologies and programmes.

We aspire to a society where such forces are free to defend their views, but in an open and democratic ideological competition between all political currents. In order for Middle Eastern societies to get back on the track of political secularisation, back to the popular critical distrust of the political exploitation of religion that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s, they need to acquire the kind of political education that can be achieved only through a long-term practise of democracy.

Having said this, the role of religious parties is different in different countries. True, Rached Ghannouchi has been welcomed by a few thousand people on his arrival at Tunis airport. But his Nahda movement has much less influence in Tunisia than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Of course, this is in part because Al-Nahda suffered from harsh repression since the 1990s. But it is also because the Tunisian society is less prone than the Egyptian to religious fundamentalist ideas, due to its higher degree of Westernisation and education, and the country's history.

But there is no doubt that Islamic parties have become the major forces in the opposition to existing regimes over the whole region. It will take a protracted democratic experience to change the direction of winds from that which has been prevailing for more than three decades.