The Arab Spring, having been the most effective instrument for overthrowing several autocratic Arab regimes, and still seriously threatening several others, is now on the threshold of securing a major and an unprecedented political victory.
The imminent ascendancy to power of Islamic political parties in Egypt, a key Arab state that influences policies in its large neighborhood, which counts over 20 Arab states, some oil rich, and a few others, marks an unprecedented and impressive achievement.
The Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, is expected to win half of the seats of the new Egyptian parliament. The remaining seats will be shared, probably equally, by the ultraconservative Islamic salafists and some more liberal groups.
This anticipated takeover through genuine parliamentary elections that followed others in Arab North Africa has raised many eyebrows, if not concern, in the wider Middle East and elsewhere, especially in the United States and Israel.
Although Washington has remained somewhat mum about the historic developments, a senior American official is expected shortly in Cairo to feel the pulse of the rulers to be when he meets with Issam al-Erian, a senior leader of the Freedom and Justice Party. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns, who has long experience in the Middle East arrives in a few days. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, an influential Democrat, along with U.S. Ambassador Anne J. Patterson, had already met with Erian earlier this month.
Clovis Maksoud, a former Arab League ambassador to the U.S. and until recently a founding director of the Centre for Global South at the American University in Washington, downplayed the rise to power of various Islamic groups in the Arab world.
“I am not deeply concerned,” he said in an interview, adding that this is the case “because the young people who initiated the revolutions in these [Arab] countries were mostly liberal, progressive forces, socialists and leftists who had confronted the authoritarian regimes and succeeded in removing them”.
He, however, expressed disappointment in the role of the young revolutionaries who seemingly failed to garner power.
“It might seem paradoxical that those who organised the pressure to remove the [Arab] dictatorships were not able to advance the clarity of their policies,” he underlined, adding that they are “allergic to excessive dogmas”.
He hoped that “the [upcoming] interactions and responsibilities of government ... will render the Islamic organisations more amenable to openness, to new ideas [to] which the liberals and modernist forces can contribute”.
Dr Maksoud voiced “deep worry” about Egypt’s constraints over “Israel’s impunity”, but Erian told The New York Times in an interview that it was now time for Israel to understand the implications of the democratic openings of the Arab Spring — “the biggest change in the Arab world’s history” — which has given a new voice to Arab anger at Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
The Washington Post, in an interview with Mohammed Saad Katatny, the secretary general of the Freedom and Justice Party, noted that the disenchanted Egyptian activists were “enrage[d]” by the steps taken so far by the party towards the ruling Egyptian junta and U.S. concerns over continued Egyptian-Israeli relations.
Katatny told the paper that U.S. officials are most worried about the fate of the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt, which his party promised to honor, although the accord might eventually be revisited.
“We are not looking for confrontation. We are not looking for war. These are not our priorities,” Katatny told the Post without elaborating.
Despite its outstanding electoral victory, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm will have to steer carefully in the months ahead, at home and abroad.
The Western powers, especially the Obama administration, should be aware that U.S. relationships with the emerging regimes in the Arab world should avoid the steps followed in the past, that is endearing itself to dictators and the military, as was the case in Egypt.
Israel, too, must realize that time is not on its side. The earlier it comes to term with the Palestinians, dropping its expansionist policies and seriously adopting the live-and-let-live philosophy the more peaceful a region will emerge.
Published in the Jordan Times on Jan. 13, 2012.