Winds of Change in the Middle East
An outlook on the recent elections in Egypt, Iraq and Palestine.
The past year witnessed several landmark elections in the Middle East. Egypt saw its first multi-candidate presidential elections. Iraq held elections for the first full-time government and parliament since the US began its occupation. Most recently, elections in the West Bank and Egypt saw the surprising rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. What do these elections mean and what are their implications in the international community?
In May of 2005, a referendum vote backed a constitutional amendment that allowed multiple candidates to participate in the presidential elections later that year. Three months later, President Hosni Mubarak was re-elected for a fifth consecutive term. Although less than a quarter of the electorate participated, Hosni claimed nearly 90 percent of the votes. His re-election sparked protests from supporters of the other candidates.
Ayman Nour, the leader of the newly established Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) opposition party, who is perceived by many as the US-backed candidate, received less than eight percent of the votes. He called for a re-run, a request that was turned down by Egypt’s electoral commission. In January of 2006, Nour, convicted of falsifying signatures to register his party, received a five-year jail term. Egypt denied Nour’s claim that the charges were politically motivated.
As for the Muslim Brotherhood, though their request to run a candidate in the presidential poll was denied, they did not ask the people to boycott the elections. Furthermore, they did not participate in condemning the alleged Mubarak-skewed results of the poll. Analysts interpreted the Brotherhood’s concession as a strategic move to avoid confrontation with the government before parliamentary elections, in which many expected them to do well.
However, few expected the Brotherhood to do this well. Despite attempts by the government to prevent voters from getting to polling stations in Muslim Brotherhood and opposition strongholds, the Brotherhood was able to earn 20 percent of the seats in Parliament, an almost six-fold increase from previous years.
Widespread violence accompanied the elections, for which the government blamed Brotherhood supporters. However, opposition groups, independent monitoring groups, and Egyptian judges monitoring the elections impugned authorities.
Hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested by the government during the second and third stages of the parliamentary poll, after the results of the first round showed a surprising win for the outlawed group. Nonetheless, the ruling National Democratic Party managed to maintain a comfortable majority in Parliament.
Last year proved to be eventful in Iraq as well. In January, eight million Iraqis participated in electing a Transitional National Assembly. The Shi`ah United Iraqi Alliance won a majority of assembly seats, followed by Kurdish parties, while many Sunni parties boycotted the elections.
In April, the Iraqi parliament selected the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani as president and Ibrahim Jaafari, a Shi`ah, as Prime Minister. Three months later, a draft of the constitution, which aimed to create an “Islamic” federal democracy in Iraq, was endorsed by Shi`ah and Kurdish negotiators, while Sunni representatives withheld support. The constitution was later approved by voters in October.
The year ended with Iraqis voting at polls to choose the first full-time government and parliament since the US-led invasion. A high turnout was reported from all participating parties including Sunni groups.
Iraq’s Shi`ah-led United Iraqi Alliance won the elections, but failed to obtain an absolute majority. The alliance took 128 of the 275 seats, while Kurdish parties won 53 seats and the main Sunni Arab bloc won 44.
Meanwhile, violence and chaos continue to be the norm in occupied Iraq.
Last year started off with a presidential election to choose a successor for the late Yasser Arafat. Voters elected Mahmoud `Abbas, the candidate of the ruling faction, Fatah. `Abbas won over 62 percent of the votes, with independent Mustafa Barghouti coming second, and the remaining candidates far behind.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad boycotted the elections. However, later that month, Hamas won 86 of the 117 seats in the municipal council of Gaza in the first ever municipal council elections in the strip.
Unlike Gaza, the major cities in the West Bank have traditionally been strongholds of Fatah. Municipal elections in the West Bank proved that even that has changed. Hamas won 73 percent of the vote in Nablus, the biggest city in the West Bank, while Fatah took 13 percent. Hamas also boasted major victories in several other cities.
Next, eyes turned to the first Palestinian parliamentary elections in a decade. Unlike in 1996, Hamas decided to run in these elections, while Islamic Jihad boycotted them. At one point, a group of younger members of Fatah split off and submitted their own list of candidates, triggering disarray within the party, only to come back and be part of a single unified Fatah list.
The Palestinians came out in full force; the turnout amongst the voters was estimated at 77 percent, and results proved to be the most shocking of the entire year. In a landslide, Hamas won 76 of the 132 seats, leaving Fatah with 43.
What does all this mean?
A closer look at the political arena in the Middle East in the past year brings to attention several interesting points:
Participation of Islamic Groups
Traditionally non-secular groups in Middle East countries have decided to participate in the political process. Although both Hamas and most Sunni parties in Iraq chose not to participate in presidential elections in their respective countries, many of the parties’ candidates ran in parliamentary elections.
The reason for their abstention from the presidential elections was simple: they view these elections as illegitimate, mainly because they are conducted in a framework that accepts the occupation.
According to Ismail Haniya, a senior member of the organization in Gaza who was later chosen as Palestinian prime minister, Hamas seeks to take part in elections that would enhance Palestinian unity, end the occupation of Palestinian land, and secure the rights of Palestinian people to return to their homes. Apparently, the municipal and parliamentary elections followed those criteria.
It should be noted that the other prominent Islamic group in occupied Palestine, Islamic Jihad, did not participate in any of the elections, presidential, municipal, or parliamentary.
The case was similar in Iraq. The Association of Muslims Scholars, the most influential Sunni religious body, boycotted the election of the Transitional Assembly on the grounds that it is meaningless under the US-led occupation. However, three of the main Sunni groups united under the Iraqi Accordance Front for the parliamentary elections.
The second issue is the surprising victory of the “Islamic” candidates in Egyptian and Palestinian elections. Support of these candidates is viewed by many as a protest to the corruption of the current leadership in these countries, and a sign of the trust gained by the Islamic movements.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is still an outlawed group—religious groups are barred from politics—though it is considered to be the opposition group with the largest base among the people. The Egyptian parliamentary elections witnessed the first time the movement’s candidates presented themselves on election posters as Brotherhood candidates, raising the slogans “Islam is the solution” and “Together for reform.”
Other opposition parties included an opposition alliance called the National Front for Change—comprising 12 mainly secular political groups, three of which were already represented in Parliament—and the newly formed opposition party al-Ghad, whose candidate Ayman Nour came second to Hosni Mubarak in the presidential election.
In the end, the ruling National Democratic Party won almost 70 percent of the seats, with the Brotherhood candidates coming second with 20 percent, leaving less than a tenth of the seats for candidates from the other independents and “legal” opposition groups.
In the elections in occupied Palestine, many believe Hamas’s reputation of “clean hands” is what won the group overwhelming majorities in Gaza, Nablus, and in parliamentary elections. Many view Hamas as the only alternative to the corrupt Fatah, and are thus willing to give it a chance.
Allegations of fraud accompanied the different stages of all the recent elections, some more serious than others.
After the Egyptian presidential elections, the Ghad party insisted that their leader, Ayman Nour, won 30 percent of the vote, and alleged that his supporters were prevented from entering the stations to vote. Similar allegations were made by the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups during the recent parliamentary elections.
In occupied Iraq, representatives of 35 parties issued a statement rejecting the initial results of the parliamentary elections and threatened to boycott the new parliament. They alleged widespread fraud and called for a cancellation of the results.
These allegations cast serious doubts on the credibility of election results in these countries and the willingness of ruling parties to accept democratic changes that bring opposition groups into power.
The response of the American government to the Middle East elections has been varied. The US government has hailed the elections of the Iraqi Transitional Assembly as a “milestone on the road to freedom” and a “victory over terror,” strongly supporting the presidential elections. However, Washington has come out against the participation of Islamic groups, such as Hamas, in the January 25th parliamentary elections in Occupied Palestine.
In the case of Egypt, the US government expressed concerns over alleged violations in the elections, and pushed strongly for the release of Ayman Nour after his jail term was announced. However, they failed to mention concerns over the hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters detained during the parliamentary elections.
What Comes Next?
To the average citizens of Egypt, occupied Iraq, or occupied Palestine, these elections may be much ado about nothing unless living conditions change. The Islamic movements are now faced with the challenge of maintaining the newly-acquired trust of the people. Groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas need to have pragmatic action plans that will transform their declared visions and principles into tangible improvements for the lives of their people. Slogans and accounts of previous achievements may be enough to win elections, but cannot go much further.
Islamic opposition parties have seemingly decided that they need to participate politically—as a means of triumphing over oppressive regimes or occupations—even in the framework of such regimes. How the ruling parties will respond to this new reality, especially with the growing support base of the opposition, remains to be seen in the near future.
Finally, the US and the international community will have to decide whether or not they are ready to sponsor a “democracy”—or rather a true Islamic authority—in the Middle East, no matter whom it brings to power. ̹