Al-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood in Two Revolutions

Are the Islamists “ready for their close-up”? In an article published on Al-Jazeera.net (10.3.11) the writer D. Parvaz, extensively quoting observers on Islamism and the Arab world like Ed Hussain, Tareq Ramadan, George Joffe, and Amina Elbendary, poses this question and points to the misrepresentation of the Islamists by the West. A West, he says, that tends to “put all the people in the same box.”

He distinguishes Al-Nahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Bortherhood (MB) in Egypt among the Islamist movements to assert that they played no role in the revolutions in both countries. And also to paint the features which reflect that they are moderate organisations. He concludes that even if these two countries end up with Islamist governments, it would not be “a catastrophe” as people do not want a religious-based system.

However, in this long article, we cannot find one word or hint as to the economic programme of the Islamists. Indeed the analysis does not mention whether the “moderate Islamists” have an economic programme and solutions to socio-economic issues which have been the root of the revolutions.

Are the “moderate Islamists” moderate in their economic alternative, too? Do they have different economic policies from the ones the Iranian regime has pursued, for example? More importantly, there is no background behind the reasons why the Islamists are “moderate.” Have they been always “moderate”?

Today the Islamists have not been in the forefront of the revolutionary movement that is sweeping the Arab world. The field has been taken by the youth, the women and the labour movement. This has obliged the Islamists to change and try to adapt to the new situation, but at the same time they do not wish the movement to become too radical. Their project is to ameliorate the situation within the confinement of a liberal capitalist environment, but with some care for the poor and the unemployed, etc.

From the Government Square in Tunis to Tahrir Square in Cairo, the economic issues have been sidelined in most recent analyses. The focus has been on political issues whereas the workers themselves have been fighting for better wages, independent unions, etc. Surely the economic aspects are fundamental?

In the Tunisian revolt in December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid economic and social slogans prevailed. In the case of Egypt, the roots of the Revolution are socio-economic and are in many ways a continuation of 2005 middle class Kifaya Movement and 2006-2008 strike waves by workers. It was during this that the April 6 Youth Movement emerged, so named, because the mostly educated young activists initiated a general strike in support of the textile workers on 6 April 2008.

It is also not correct to consider Ben Ali and Mubarak as secular leaders, as D. Parvaz does. Both of them used religion and religious institutions for their own interests; they both repackaged the language of religion to marginalise the Islamists. Mubarak went further when he opened the TV stations for Islamic preachers as well as using the morality police against “offenders of the moral codes, the homosexuals for example, as well as against the trash-recycling pig farmers, single women, Shia’ and Christians.” Ben Ali, on the other hand, was even given the tile of “the protector of the motherland and religion” (Ha’mi Alhima’ wa Eddeen).

Some analysts describe Rachid Al-Gahnnoushi, the leader of the Tunisia Al-Nahda Movement, as “a progressive.” Al-Ghannoushi claims to defend democracy and he is for a democratic constitution and his model is the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. He believes that “The successful AKP experience has influenced Islamists everywhere.” The AKP advocates and defends the liberal free market economy, maintains close relationships with the Zionist state of Israel, and Turkey is still a member of NATO despite an apparent weakening of the army. So much for “a progressive” defending “a progressive” ruling party! The rise of the AKP was fuelled by the emergence of a conservative middle class that undermined military rule, and it remains an integral part of the Turkish bourgeoisie.

Turkey still refuses to remove repressive labour laws that limit workers’ rights; nearly 20 per cent of the population of Turkey lives below the poverty line. According to a 2009 report by the Turkish Statistical Institute approximately 15 million people (out of a population of about 88 million) are struggling to obtain the basic necessities of life, 6 per cent of children between the age of 6 and 17 are working an average of 51 hours a week! The majority of Turkey’s wealth is in the private sector.

Since his return to Tunisia, Al-Ghannoushi has barely addressed the economic alternative for Tunisia. In an interview with “International Movement for a Just World” (www.just-international.org) he stated: “In the economic sphere Islam is closer to the left-wing outlook, without violating the right to private property. The Scandinavian socio-economic model is closest to the Islamic vision.”

The “left-wing outlook” Al-Ghannouchi refers to is the Social Democratic project, but this Social Democratic Welfare State project is in crisis throughout Europe. It is questionable how much of the social-democratic welfare model will remain in Western Europe in 5 years time. There have been general strikes to protect the rights of the majority in Greece, Portugal, France, and Spain. There is a general malaise across Europe. Is this really a model North Africa can create or should aspire to?

Europe faces massive privatisation, attacks on the welfare system, involvement in wars abroad and anti-immigration policies at home. If it happens that the average Scandinavian countries is slightly better off than the average German for example, it does not mean such a model can be emulated in North Africa. In fact even in the case of Sweden, one third of the national wealth is owned by one family.

If this is the private property that Al-Nahda’s leader is defending then his economic project is constrained within the framework of the existing division of wealth and power. A system established under the dictatorship of crony capitalism serving a tiny minority. What Al-Ghannoushi advocates is class collaboration, a collaboration that unites “the nation”, “rich and poor.”

Such unity is the unity of an aspirant democratic bourgeoisie eager to cuddle up and unite with the bourgeoisie of the dictatorship. Under these plans those who robbed and plundered the people for generations will have their ill-gotten gains cleaned by “the democratic process” and this in the name of peace and unity! Nothing better expresses the willingness to collaborate with the bourgeoisie than what Al-Ghannoushi said after he was amnestied in 1987: “I have trust in Allah and in Ben Ali.” Later, Al-Nahda, an nearly all the political parties signed “The National Pact” with Ben Ali’s regime

In an event organised by the School of Oriental and African Studies (04 February 2011), Mohamed Ali from the Islam Channel replying to a question on development and employment said: “the question is not about creating employment, but about creating wealth.” Ali did not elaborate on this and such a statement is unclear. However, if he means that creating wealth precedes employment or that priority should be given to wealth, then this is a reversal of fundamental facts and reflects a whole outlook on economic laws. In fact, wealth is created by human hands and brains. Providing useful employment creates wealth, not the other way around, the wealthy only invest to make profits from the sweat and toil of the poor.

The Trabelsi family had the wealth but did not create employment for the unemployed. The banks and capitalists in the West sit on the money instead of investing it in employment until they find a profitable means of exploiting the people. Simultaneously, the world has an ever rising number of US Dollar Billionaires; the interests of their economic empires tend to dominate politics. This is true even in well-established West European democracies, as the sinister and clown-like antics of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy reveal.

In the 1950s to 1980s the Muslim Brotherhood represented disenchanted elements of the national bourgeoisie. In fact one can argue that these people are tainted with Mubarak’s “pluralism.” The “new-old” guard of the Brotherhood have participated and benefited from the recent “economic boom.” These leaders now own cell-phone companies and real estate developments, for example, and have joined the upper-middle class.

Politically, the MB has suffered internal divisions, and this is one of the reasons that they tail-ended the revolutionary movement. In Tunisia, Abd Al-Fattah Morou, a leading and historical figure in Al-Nahda Movement has been expelled from the Movement and he is in the process of forming what he calls “an Islamist centre party.”

With its core drawn from worse-off middle class layers, the Islamist movement succeeded in mobilising significant numbers of a discontented population using the language of religion, cultural purity and identity, as a substitute for politics. The failure of the modernisation project in the 1960s and 1970s bred and mobilized ‘middle class over-achievers’ who were marginalised economically, politically and culturally. The failure of the left and the nationalist project, and the support of imperialism for the Islamist movement, saw the latter filling the vacuum.

When Anouar Assadat took over after the death of Nasser in 1970, he helped to prop the MB up in order to use them to counter the left Nasserists and the radicals. They were completely drawn into the “Opening” , the economic policy of privatisation pursued by Assadat. As a result the MB saw an increase in the influence of men who belong to “the new bourgeoisie.” At the same time these men condemned and attacked corruption by expressing piety, which effectively found ground among the petit bourgeoisie, the MB’s main base.

Essam El-Errian, a member of the guidance council of the MB, expressed the Brotherhood’s demands in a statement published by the New York Times (09 February 2011), “In more than eight decades of activism, the MB has consistently promoted an agenda of gradual reform… We have repeatedly tried to engage with the political system, yet these efforts have been largely rejected based on the assertion that the Muslim Brotherhood is a banned organization…”. Clearly, the MB does not challenge the whole regime in Egypt, it merely wants recognition and believes in reform.

In fact, the MB demonstrated that it was ready to accept Mubarak’s regime if the latter met people’s demands; they wanted the regime to stay but without Mubarak: “The Mubarak regime has yet to show serious commitment to meeting these demands or to moving toward substantive, guaranteed change,” pledged El-Errian.

Like their brothers in Tunisia the MB leadership believes in class collaboration. On 17 March Aljazeera.net reported that the MB, with a certain number of political parties, has agreed on an initiative: “For Egypt.” The initiative’s mission is to push for constitutional amendments and to draft an electoral programme for the coming parliamentary elections. MB leader, Mohamed Badie, said that the initiative comes as a conclusion of the revolution. Let’s remember that before 25th January the MB refused to take part in the revolutionary movement that had already gathered pace without the Brothers.

In fact, the initiative aims at limiting the revolution to a set of reforms. For instance, what the MB and the other parties, including a nationalist leftist party (Hizb Attajamou), which are part of the initiative have agreed upon is: an investigation of the plunder carried out by the regime, restructuring the budget, less taxation on the small investors, implementing the court’s decision in relation to the minimum wage and the writing off of the farmers’ debts towards the Agricultural Bank. The initiative also calls for the creation of a fund to support the martys’ families and an independent institution of Al-Zakaat (a fund to help the poor).

Two days before this initiative, Issam Sharef, the Egyptian Prime Minister, asserted that his country would continue to follow the free market economy, but making sure that social justice be achieved. Now, if for decades the most developed economies on earth have not achieved social justice by implementing free market, i.e. capitalist, economic policies, one would only hope for Moses’ stick to create social justice in a poor country like Egypt.

Politically, the Supreme Military Council (SMC) in Egypt have decided to push forward for a coalition of parties against the secular groups that led the revolution. Quoted by the Financial Times, Hossam Tammam, an analyst who specialises in Islamist groups, said: “There are signs the military may have decided to bet on the Brotherhood as the biggest organised force on the street. The others [small parties and secular groups] may be seen by the army as representing an unwanted and radical transition to democracy.” (FT, 17.3. 2011)

Contrary to the bourgeois and reformist parties and groups, the “unwanted and radical transition to democracy” for the secular-led revolutionary movement means real freedom and genuine democracy: freedom from poverty, jobs, decent healthcare and education and direct democratic participation of the people in decisions that affect their lives. The revolutionary movement raised the slogan “the people want to overthrow the regime.” By that they meant the regime of oppression and injustice, which means the overthrow of the regime’s constitution and its laws, its political apparatus and its repressive machines.

The SMC plan is a move to abort the revolutionary process for the benefit of the Brotherhood and the remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP)! The MB is in fact taking part in the military-bourgeois and imperialist plan of “orderly transition of power.” The result of which will be a new parliament dominated by conservative forces though the MB had already declared it was not going to field a candidate in the presidential elections.

Like the High Council for the achievement of the Goals of the Revolution in Tunisia which consists of many forces and people that did not take part in the revolution, it is merely another attempt to hijack the people’s revolution, the “For Egypt” initiative will represent the Egyptian bourgeoisie but with the inclusion of some figures from the youth movement and the “left”, to stop the wheel of radicalisation that is still rolling in forms of strikes and formation of workers committees and independent representation, etc.

The regime in Egypt, like others in the region, has allowed Islamic NGO’s and charities to help out the poor. The aim has been to contain social explosion and delay or minimise class conflicts. It is worth noting that after Ben Ali’s flight, representatives from Al-Nahda held talks with the Interim government at least twice, as did the Muslim Brotherhood even before Mubarak stepped down. Thus the Muslim Brotherhood, along with its participation in Parliament as independent candidates, has been giving a hand to the regime to preserve the status quo rather than overthrowing it along with its oppressive system. This is why they were left behind when revolution called.

The Arab revolution began with socio-economic demands and against social injustice and dictatorship, but after the toppling of Ben Ali and Mubarak, the dictatorial institutions of the state have been trying to resist the pressure of the revolutionary people through manoeuvring and cunning. Now the process has been confined to the political arena. The workers and the youth are still trying to keep the process on.

However, the dangers are now bigger than before as reformism is gaining pace. Without extending the struggle to a combination of a socio-economic as well as political revolution, people’s hopes and aspirations will be dashed. Trade unionists, social and political activists from North Africa should assist this process by making direct links with their fellow workers in Europe to exchange information and ideas about their rights and their common struggles.

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