The Islamist forces are enthusiastic about the uprisings throughout the Arab world, knowing they will offer an opportunity to begin gradually recreating an unofficial Caliphate. Oppressive pro-Western governments, nationalist sentiments and secular forces stand in their way, but the Islamists’ organizational capabilities and clerical support give them an advantage. The Muslim Brotherhood suddenly has a chance to rapidly come to power throughout the entire Middle East and have parties and governments able to jointly reshape the region.
Egypt has received the most attention regarding a possible Muslim Brotherhood takeover. A World Public Opinion poll in 2009 showed that 69 percent of Egyptians believe the Brotherhood is genuinely democratic and 64 percent give it a positive rating. Less than one-fourth consider it to be an extremist group. A Pew poll in 2010 found strong support for a judicial system based on Sharia, including 84 percent supporting the execution of apostates. The most recent poll found only 15 percent supported the Brotherhood but it only surveyed Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria whereas the Islamist support comes from the poorer areas of the country.
Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, who Robert Spencer has appropriately dubbed “Egypt’s New Hitler,” led prayers on stage at Tahrir Square. He used the moment to sideline Google executive Wael Ghonim, an instrumental figure in the Nile Revolution, refusing to allow him to take the stage. The Brotherhood’s apparatus has gone into high gear to prepare for elections by registering to participate under the name of the Freedom and Justice Party, beginning a monthly newspaper and various other publications and announcing plans for a new satellite television show.
The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to modify its image by saying it is a moderate force in favor of democracy and will not seek a parliamentary majority or even participate in presidential elections. This is a political trick. The group probably concluded it would not win a majority in parliament and even if it could, it will still be better to form a bloc with parties that arouse less suspicion. The reason it isn’t going to run a candidate in the presidential elections is because it already has a candidate: Mohammed el-Baradei.
The alliance between Mohammed el-Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood is welcomed news in Tehran, as el-Baradei has said the Iranian regime is reasonable and he may have received covert Iranian financing. The Muslim Brotherhood, though Sunni, has allied to Iran as the regime has sponsored Hamas. The Brotherhood recently put any doubt about its extremism or stance toward Iran to rest when one of its top officials spoke at a conference in Tehran and said that Ahmadinejad is the “bravest man” in the Middle East and that more “innocent, honest and brave leaders like him” are needed.
Luckily, the Wall Street Journal says political parties in Egypt are “sprouting like weeds” and different factions of the Muslim Brotherhood may start breaking away to form their own parties. The Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Mousa, is running for president and though he is a ferocious critic of Israel, he is an opponent of Iran. The poll of Egyptians in Cairo and Alexandria showed him with a massive lead over el-Baradei and every other candidate.
In Tunisia, the return of Rachid Ghannouchi of the Islamist al-Nahda party was welcomed by thousands. In 1989, his party won about 17 percent of the vote. He has preached much more moderately since when he was a ferocious critic of secularism. He now says he is nothing like Ayatollah Khomeini and that the implementation of Sharia law has “no place in Tunisia.” There have been expressions of anti-Semitism since President Ben Ali’s fall but it is difficult to evaluate the strength of support for Sharia-based governance. It is certain, though, that al-Nahda has a base of support that it can use to effectively campaign that the secularists currently do not.
The revolution in Libya is not religious in nature but anarchy could permit terrorists to find safe haven. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has endorsed the uprising. There is a report that former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group have seized weapons and declared an “Islamic Emirate of Barqa” in Derna but this claim came from an anonymous “security official” and Qaddafi’s deputy foreign minister. Residents in the area say this is not true, but there is reason to be concerned. The country has acted as a significant recruiting ground for terrorists in the past as Saudis and Libyans made up the largest portion of foreign fighters in Iraq. Over 60 percent of the Libyan militants came from Derna and about 24 percent came from Benghazi, two areas currently freed from Qaddafi’s grip. The Muslim Brotherhood has also been active in Libya since the 1950s and Sheikh al-Qaradawi has issued a fatwa for Libyan soldiers to kill Qaddafi.
Algeria is another country in play for the Islamists in North Africa. A bloody civil war erupted when the military took over to prevent the Islamists from coming to power democratically. The state of emergency that was put into place to clamp down on the Islamists was lifted in February in response to large protests and riots. Al-Qaeda has also established a powerful branch in North Africa that has been very active in Algeria.
A main opposition group in Morocco is the Islamist Justice and Development Party. Its unofficial newspaper has spouted anti-Semitic and anti-Western rhetoric, such as saying that a tsunami in December 2004 was a judgment from God upon disobedient Muslims. The paper’s website has linked to Sheikh Qaradawi’s Union of Good, a network of charities that finance Hamas. However, the party does have competition as it came in second in the 2007 parliamentary elections, though foul play was alleged. The Islamist party did not endorse large protests that were recently held, showing an independent streak on the part of the demonstrators.
Sudan may be the next country to become a thoroughly Sharia-based state. President Omar Bashir has said that once South Sudan secedes, he will make Sharia the only source of legislation and Arabic the only language in the country. This is probably a move to appease his Islamist opposition, led by Muslim Brotherhood leader Hasan al-Turabi. Bashir arrested the cleric after he called for an uprising following the Jasmine Revolution and protests immediately formed to demand his release. Nearby in Somalia, the Al-Qaeda-affiliate al-Shabaab controls the southern and central parts of the country including parts of Mogadishu.
The Islamists are also in a good position in the Gulf. The majority of the population in Jordan is Palestinian and polls show a high level of extremism. The Muslim Brotherhood is the dominant opposition force, though it is currently protesting alongside various other parties and organizations. The protests in Iraq are not aimed at overthrowing the government and the pro-Iranian parties lost in a landslide in the last elections, but Moqtada al-Sadr has returned to Iraq and may benefit from the government’s declining support. The government of Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood and has grown closer to Iran and Syria but still hosts a major U.S. base. Protests are being organized now to demand the resignation of the Emir, the cutting of ties to both Israel and Iran and the removal of the U.S. base.
The Yemeni President has taken an anti-American turn in his rhetoric since facing his own uprising. The main opposition bloc is the Joint Meetings Party, of which the Islamist Islah Party is the strongest component. Islah is an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood and it has won support from tribal chiefs and Salafists. It supports creating a religious police like that in Saudi Arabia to “promote virtue and combat vice” and is critical of Yemen’s relationship with the U.S. The Treasury Department has designated one of its top leaders, Sheikh Abdul Majidal-Zindani, as a terrorist for his ties to Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Sheikh Qaradawi. He continues to have significant support and recently spoke in front of thousands of protesters. He does not hide his goal, saying “an Islamic state is coming.” Even if Islah does not come to power, instability in Yemen will benefit the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The situation is less clear in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The younger Saudi population is in favor of reform but a very strong Wahhabist clergy and elements of the Royal Family like Prince Nayef oppose them. Kuwait’s Islamist forces suffered a major defeat at the polls in 2009 but remain a potent force, especially the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate called the Islamic Constitutional Movement and the Islamic Salafi Alliance. There is a Salafi religious network in Kuwait to be concerned about, such as a popular cleric named Sheikh Hamid al-Ali who has been designated by the U.S. as a financier of terrorism.
In Bahrain, 70 percent of the population is Shiite, which one would presume would benefit Iran. However, the Shiite opposition says “We are not looking for a religious government like Iran’s” and another opposition leader said, “We want genuine democracy, not clerical.” Cables released by Wikileaks show that Bahrain told General Petraeus in 2008 that the Shiite opposition was being trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon but the U.S. had “seen no convincing evidence of Iranian weapons or government money here since at least the mid-1990s” and Bahrain was unable to offer proof.
Radical Islamic anti-Western governments are already in power in Iran, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip and Turkey has moved decisively in a pro-Iran, Islamist direction. Syria, though governed by a secular regime, is a strong ally of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. Ironically, the Assad regime’s most organized opposition force is the Muslim Brotherhood. The latest protests by Palestinians threaten the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank more than the Hamas regime in Gaza. It is not inconceivable that Hamas could control both Palestinian territories as the terrorist group is viewed favorably by 47 percent of those in the West Bank.
As these governments become unstable, a struggle will ensue between those who favor secular democracy and the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists that view separation of mosque and state as a heresy and jihad against the West as a command from Allah. The stakes could not be much higher.
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