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The rising Islamists’ political economy

By Fawaz A Gerges
May 10th 2012


Islamist parties are proving to be the main beneficiaries of the Arab world’s political transformation. But their very success in the political arena highlights the huge challenges they face in developing and implementing a coherent economic programme, says Fawaz A Gerges.

In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, Islamists or religious-based activists are poised over the coming years to take ownership of the seats of power in the Arab heartland. They have already won majorities of parliamentary seats in a number of countries, including Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, and will likely make further gains in Libya and Jordan (and maybe even in Syria after the dust settles on the ragingbattlefield there).

In the last four decades, centrist or modernist Islamists, most of whom accept the rules of the political game, brilliantly positioned themselves as the alternative to the failed secular “authoritarian bargain”. They invested considerable capital in building social networks on the national and local levels, including non-government professional civil society associations, welfare, and family ties. In contrast to their secular-minded opponents, Islamists have mastered the art of local politics and built a formidable political machine that repeatedly has proved able to deliver the vote. Islamists’ recent parliamentary victories are not surprising, because they had paid their dues and earned the trust of voters. These results show that they are cashing in on social investments made under authoritarian rule in their local communities.

Although Islamists did not trigger the revolts that shredded the Arab authoritarian order to pieces, their decades-long resistance to autocratic rulers turned them into shadow governments in the peoples’ eyes. A vote for the Islamists implied a clean break with the failed past and a belief (still to be tested) that they can deliver the goods – jobs, economic stability, and transparency. Thus the political fortunes of rising Islamists will ultimately depend on whether they live up to their promises and meet the rising expectations of the Arab publics.

The business agenda

Islamist parties are increasingly becoming “service” parties: an acknowledgment that political legitimacy and the likelihood of re-election rests on the ability to deliver jobs, economic growth, and to demonstrate transparency. This factor introduces a huge degree of pragmatism in their policies. The example of Turkey, especially its economic success, has had a major impact on Arab Islamists, many of whom would like to emulate the Turkish model. The Arab Islamists have, in other words, understood the truth of the slogan, “It is the economy, stupid!” The Turkish model, with the religiously observant provincial bourgeoisie as its kingpin, also acts as a reminder that Islam and capitalism are mutually reinforcing and compatible.

It is notable that the Islamists’ economic agenda does not espouse a distinctive “Islamic” economic model. This is unsurprising, however, as an Islamic economic model does not exist. Islamists suffer from a paucity of original ideas on the economy and have not even developed a blueprint to tackle the structural socioeconomic crisis in Arab societies.

Nevertheless, what distinguishes centrist religious-based groups from their leftist and nationalist counterparts is a friendly sensibility toward business activities including wealth accumulation and free-market economics. Islamism is a bourgeois movement consisting mostly of middle-class professionals, businessmen, shopkeepers, petty merchants and traders.

If there is a slogan that best describes Islamists’ economic attitude, it would be: “Islam-is-good-for-business”. Many Arab Islamists admire and wish to imitate the example of Turkey, even though they know little about the complexity of the country’s economy and lack Turkey’s strategic economic model. What impresses them is Turkey’s economic dynamism, especially the dynamism of the religiously observant provincial bourgeoisie who have turned Anatolian towns such as Kayseri, Konya and Gaziantep into industrial powerhouses driving the growth of the Turkish economy.

For example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has assured the western powers of its commitment to free-market capitalism. The architect of the Brotherhood’s economic policy, the millionaire businessman Khairat al-Shater, has silenced voices within the organisation that call for a more egalitarian, socialist approach. Although he does not hold elected office, in April 2012 he met the International Monetary Fund team which is negotiating a $3.2-billion loan facility with the Egyptian government. The IMF has said it wants broad political backing for the deal.

After the Brotherhood confirmed al-Shater as a presidential candidate (and prior to his disqualification by Egypt’s election commission), the group intensified its contacts with western states; al-Shater himself offered direct reassurance to diplomats and economists from the United States during their visits to Cairo (see Ramadan Al Sherbini, “Broherhood Courts the West,” Gulf News, 5 April 2012).

In an interview with Al-Jazeera, al-Shater said that economic development would be the most pressing priority for his administration and would be based on structural reforms and growth (see Anas Ziki, “Al-Shater: We are competing for president because of a plot to make us fail”, Al-Jazeera [in Arabic], 12 April 2012). Mohamed Habib, a former deputy supreme guide of the Brotherhood, said that “[the Brothers] tightened the screws on anyone who had different ideas about economics” (see David D Kirkpatrick, “Keeper of Islamic Flames Rises as Egypt’s New Decisive Voice”, New York Times, 12 March 2012).

The “Islamic” economy

Yet if centrist-Islamists are generally for free-market economy and have always been, they are also likely to seek religious legitimation for their economic policies. For example, Islamist parties have publicly vowed to promote social justice and have stressed their long record of social work among the poor. Most have chosen names like “Justice and Development” or “Freedom and Justice”, a choice which shows their concerns, if not their priorities. In this sense, some Islamist-specific economic measures and ideas will be introduced to complement free-market capitalism (for a detailed account of the Brotherhood’s economic plan and the projects it intends to launch, see Hani al-Waziri, “Al Masri Al Youm publishes details of the ‘Brotherhood’s renaissance’ plans: Economic restructuring according to Islamic principles…and 100 national projects”, Almasry-alyoum [in Arabic], 26 April 2012).

The Muslim Brothers, along with the Salafists, who are religiously ultra-conservative but are less enamoured with the free market than the Brothers, have already called for the introduction of an index of companies that comply with Sharia law, as part of a wider move toward an “Islamic” economy. The idea is designed to appeal to their base and to attract investments from the Gulf Arab region, where a Sharia-compliant economic system exists, but does not alter the basics of Islamists’ preference for free-market capitalism (see Heba Saleh, “Egyptian officials look to set up Islamist index”, Financial Times, 1 February 2012).

Similarly, according to one of the architects of Ennahda’s economic programme in Tunisia, Ridha Chkoundali, “The banking system will be diversified and the Tunisian financial market will therefore be made up of traditional and Islamic banks… As a result, there will be more competition between the banks.” In Morocco too, the newly designated prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane acknowledged the importance of addressing economic issues: “We will do everything to encourage foreign and domestic investment to create a climate of prosperity” (see “Morocco Embraces Democracy as King Mohammed VI Appoints New Cabinet  “, Morocco News Agency, 3 January 2012).

The dual challenge

There is nothing in Islamists’ current statements and ideas that shows them to be socialist-oriented, though most readily accept the Keynesian model of active state intervention in the economy. Among Islamists, the interventionist approach appeals most to Salafists, who forcefully call for the adoption of distributive measures to address rampant poverty. Yet the dominant Islamist approach to the economy, with minor variations, is free-market capitalism. In Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, the Brotherhood, Ennahda and the Justice & Development Party have sufficient interests to deal with global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; they do not have the luxury or ideological sensibility to be insular because their countries do not have access to huge rents and raw resources, especially petroleum.

These Islamists also face a huge challenge: to deliver critical economic improvements in the short term, while devising a long-term comprehensive reform agenda that lays the foundation of a productive economy. The dismal socioeconomic conditions in transitioning Arab countries – abject poverty, double-digit unemployment, the absence of a competitive private sector, against a background of rising expectations – mean that the new governments will be hard pressed to focus on distributive policies and urgent short-term needs.

Yet like other political groups, Islamist parties have their sights on the electoral map and want to be re-elected. Will they have the time, space and vision to invest in innovation, technology and the knowledge economy in order to engineer sustainable development; or will they succumb to instrumentalist political temptation by pursuing short-term electoral gains?

Originally published By Open Democracy

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