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Regional rise of Islamists fraught with challenges

June 21, 2012
ANALYSIS

TUNIS: From Libya to the Gulf, the rise of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has buoyed Islamists around the region, but the military’s bid to curb their power has also exposed the fragility of the gains Islamists have made since the Arab Spring.

Banned for decades until Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in the face of popular protest last year, the Brotherhood claimed victory on Monday for its presidential candidate Mohamed Morsy in a runoff against his military rival Ahmed Shafik.

But a sweeping legal manoeuvre by Cairo’s military rulers made clear the generals planned to keep control for now, even if Shafik’s counter-claim that he had won the poll proved justified.

Since emerging from the shadows, the Brotherhood has shown it can draw votes, but remains stuck in a high-stakes game for Egypt’s future against an opponent with the power and the will to change the rules when deemed necessary.

The outcome of the power struggle in strategic heavyweight Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, is likely to have the biggest impact in the Gaza Strip, where a Morsy win will give a political boost to the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.

Hamas hopes an Islamist-led Egypt will loosen the shackles of a long-running Israeli blockade. If the Brotherhood takes control, Hamas also hopes its position in the internal struggle with Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas may be strengthened.

“It is very normal that we are much happier that Mohamed Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, should be the president of Egypt,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zohri.

But while it could prove a morale boost for Hamas, few believe a victory for Morsy will bring substantial change to either Egypt’s peace deal with Israel or the blockade, which has been maintained with the complicity of Egyptian authorities.

“I do not think that we will see changes regarding the blockade, as the Egyptian intelligence is responsible for this issue, taking into consideration the international agreements with Israel,” said Gaza-based analyst Mohamed Abu Seda.

“Egypt is facing a very complicated period that will lead to political uncertainty … as we witness contradictions of interests between the military council and the … Brotherhood.”

The backlash in the gulf

Indeed, much as the Brotherhood’s popularity at the polls has alarmed Egypt’s military rulers, it has seen conservative Gulf Arab governments, worried that the tide of revolt would eventually hit their shores, clamp down on their own Islamists.

Emboldened by the growing clout of Islamist groups who have won elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, members of Islah, or Reform, in the United Arab Emirates have stepped up demands for greater power to go to a semi-elected advisory council.

Unwilling to tolerate independent political parties or groups, the UAE has moved against its Islamist dissidents.

At least 10 Islamists were arrested in the past two months, including a ruling family member held at the ruler’s palace in the northern emirate of Ras al-Khaimah. The UAE has revoked the citizenship of seven Islamists it said posed a security threat.

Islamists in the UAE say they share an ideology but no direct link with Egypt’s Brotherhood, which at over 80 years old is seen as the grandfather of Islamist groups around the world.

“The UAE is clearly worried about local Islamists… It has a problem with Islah and its own Islamists,” said Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdullah.

While the UAE government is likely to accept whatever leader emerges victorious in Egypt’s run-off, the growing clout of the Brotherhood and its potential emulators at home could yet strain ties within the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

“The UAE has serious problem with the Qataris trying to support a regional role for the Brotherhood,” said Ayham Kamel, London-based analyst at Eurasia Group.

“Abu Dhabi and Dubai see the regional rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat. Qatari support for them is likely to create tensions within the GCC and even on a bilateral level.”

Neighbours watch closely

While Egyptians go through a tortuous transition process that has seen parliamentary polls cancelled and the power of president cast into doubt, Tunisians breathe a sigh of relief.

Their own journey has been far smoother, with no military rulers to turn the tables against the Islamist Ennahda party that won the first election of the Arab Spring in October.

Unlike the Brotherhood, Ennahda kept its promise not to run in presidential elections, going some way to reassuring the powerful secularist establishment, though a victory for the military’s Shafik could embolden members of the former regime who have already formed a party ahead of next year’s polls.

Watching even more closely are the Libyans, who go to the polls in early July for the first national elections since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO-backed rebellion last year.

As in other North African countries, the local incarnation of the Brotherhood has emerged as a key player in elections.

For the first time in their history, youths from Libya’s once-banned Brotherhood are campaigning on Tripoli streets, distributing brochures for their Justice and Development Party.

“Morsy winning will give a boost to our cause in Libya,” said Marwan al-Katib, 21. “Libyans will say: oh, the Brotherhood won in Egypt so we need to learn more about this group and maybe they are the right people for us.”

– Reuters


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