Islamist election successes have lessons for left

Socialists need to play the long game, argues James Turley

Tahrir Square: Muslim Brotherhood’s low profile

A year after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, the new political landscape of the Middle East is beginning to emerge. The tumult of the Arab awakening, it seems, is producing a tranche of new Islamist governments where former tyrants have been toppled.

The first round of results from what looks to be an extraordinarily tortuous electoral process in Egypt display, to the considerable surprise of some, a strong showing for the Muslim Brotherhood’s political front, the Freedom and Justice Party. More worryingly, the Salafist fanatics of the Nour Party look to have taken second place in this part of the poll, which covers the major urban centres of Cairo and Alexandria.

In Tunisia, after two decades of Ben Ali’s repression, it was an Islamist party that emerged in pole position when it came to the country’s first electoral test. The Ennahda Party - in origin, a spin-off of the Muslim Brotherhood - polled well in elections to the country’s constituent assembly in October, taking 40% of the vote and the seats in the assembly.

Both results are, superficially, all the more remarkable in that the initial stages of the Arab revolts were notable for the relatively low profile of Islamists on major demonstrations. In Tunisia, trade unions were prominent; in Egypt, secular forces seemed to predominate in Tahrir Square, while the Muslim Brotherhood chose to bide its time. That course of events did not chime well with the portrait of the Arab world painted by imperialists and their apologists, of a seething pit of fanaticism and reaction; indeed, that picture was equally well endorsed by certain ‘third worldist’ elements, for whom Islamism was a ‘natural’ form for anti-imperialist resistance to take. Suddenly, the bourgeoisie’s ‘clash of civilisations’ gibberish began to look more than a little shaky.

That Islamists were not the main visible presence, however, should not be taken to mean that they were not there at all. The Muslim Brotherhood is the most socially well-rooted political force in Egypt. Though officially proscribed, it has had a ready outlet for its teachings in the organisations around the mosque. Egyptian imams may be tame state appointees, but the realm of religion remained fertile ground for the MB.

The MB did more than that. With some considerable enthusiasm and commendable patience, it built a hugely powerful organisation that encompasses political activism, religious education, social welfare and innumerable other functions - in a way that recalls what the mass organisations of classical social democracy were able to do in the 19th and early 20th century. It is this deep and very real penetration into the actual lived experience of the Arab masses that has bought the Islamists credit in their eyes.

The MB’s penetration has come of a very real - and from its perspective, very wise - shift in strategy: from somewhat classic terrorism to community activism and ceaseless propaganda. Its mass base has - naturally - caused it to be courted, not least among a US establishment looking for stable allies after the loss of its Egyptian and Tunisian client tyrants. The MB’s comparatively low profile in Tahrir Square reflects its cautious political approach; and now the consensus opinion emanating from Washington and elsewhere is that these are ‘moderate’ Islamists.

This ‘moderation’ should not be overstated, of course - Ennahda likes to style itself after the European Christian democratic parties, but a closer analogue for it and the MB would perhaps be the Christian Coalition and its various clones in the US, who use their roots in society to turn out millions of shock-troop voters for candidates of the Republican right (and, on a smaller scale, the ‘faith, flag and family’ wing of the British Tory Party). The direct rule of this cabal of religious reactionaries over the American state, should it ever come to pass, would not be very much congruent with even the imperfect democratic ideals of the founding fathers.

Likewise, it is quite possible for the MB to find a place for itself within the new political horizon as a straightforward bourgeois party of the state - albeit such a state will likely be an authoritarian theocracy with limited political freedom after the fashion of the Iranian Islamic republic. It remains reliant on a petty bourgeois base of support, of course - but so, in a sense, do the US Republicans and our own Tories. Nour, it has to be said, is another matter. Inspired by a particular Saudi brand of Salafism, it openly declares its support for the constitutional enforcement of sharia law, and its contempt for democracy as ‘ungodly’.

It is plain to see that the imperialist establishment is most keen on driving a wedge between the MB and Nour; far better, it argues, would be a coalition with the currently marginalised liberal and secular forces. At this point, however, there is the problem that this simply may not be supported by the electoral mathematics; many estimates put the total Islamist vote at 65%, with 25% going to Nour. There may be no other option than to bring the latter in.

The other major force in all this is the Egyptian military, the basis for the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Having ditched the latter, the army has done its utmost to retain the fundamental political structure through which it ruled. Its rule, it should not be forgotten, allowed the top brass to accumulate enormous reserves of wealth; the Egyptian army is not merely a standing military force, but an enormous, unwieldy and corrupt capitalist firm. There is still a great deal at stake for Mubarak’s inheritors in the new situation.

It was the army which wanted to press forward with elections - and the army which equally wanted the electoral process to be as convoluted and long-winded as possible (a de jure government - as opposed to a transitional regime to discuss constitutional changes - is not supposed to be elected until 2014). It has been quite happy to strike a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to ensure an ‘orderly’ transition.

For the army, however, this is playing with fire. Let us naively assume that the MB is quite serious in its Islamo-socialistic rhetoric - then surely the corrupt holdings of the Egyptian army will eventually come under threat. Should, as is more likely, a victorious Freedom and Justice Party proceed immediately (as did the Khomeini regime) to fill its own pockets, then it will find in the army a competitor. Either which way, the army is likely to come up against the new government; throw in the probability of increased tensions with Israel and the raw material is there for a major conflict within the state.

Where does this leave the left? It has certainly been outstripped electorally so far, and further rounds of voting - for the most part in the countryside - are unlikely to redress this deficit at all. In fact, it is necessary to take a leaf out of the Muslim Brotherhood’s book, and prepare to play the long game. The Arab awakening is quite genuinely an event of historic significance, and the left can hardly be expected, after such long years of anti-working class repression, to make immediate gains.

What is critically important is to maintain, and fight to deepen, the new political freedoms which resulted from the fall of Mubarak. Political freedom, as Marxists from Marx to Kautsky to Lenin always emphasised, is the light and air of the proletariat. The forced march to early elections was not at all in our interests; it favoured those forces already best rooted in society, which - as is now obvious - means the different brands of Islamists on the one hand, and the army on the other. Neither has any interest in extending democracy. However, the protracted electoral process at least holds out for the left the possibility of beginning to sink roots in society, as does the likelihood of grubby political warfare between two factions within the state.

The raw material is there. Egypt has been the site of considerable labour struggles in recent years; now it has experienced the exhilaration of a (partially) successful democratic revolutionary movement. Now that the dust begins to settle, those who would administer capitalism - whether they be military bureaucrats or Islamist radicals - will have to face up to uncomfortable and unpopular choices. The revolutionary left - in Egypt, alas, as elsewhere, pitifully weak and divided - needs only to get its act together to make a real impact.

james.turley@weeklyworker.org.uk