Islamist parties' new strength challenge for White House

December 18, 2005|By MEGAN K. STACK AND TYLER MARSHALL | MEGAN K. STACK AND TYLER MARSHALL,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAIRO -- When Iraqis swarmed to the polls last week to cast ballots in parliamentary elections, the Bush administration hailed a democratic victory in a region creaking under the weight of corruption, cronyism and dictatorship.

But the outcome may not be what the administration had in mind when U.S. forces swept President Saddam Hussein from power more than 2 1/2 years ago.

Iraq's elections were dominated by Islamic clerics, and the incoming parliament is likely to include a large proportion of Islamist legislators, many of whom have ties to the mullahs of Iran. In recent elections across the Middle East, Islamist parties have capitalized on new political freedoms to gain clout and legitimacy unprecedented in the modern Middle East. Their growing strength is the single most unpredictable element in the Bush administration's grand vision to replace despots with democracy.

Whether it's the Shiite Muslim-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Palestinian group Hamas or Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Islamist parties have benefited from the administration's promotion of democracy in the Arab world. But the Islamists have also gained strength from widespread opposition to U.S. policy, which has convinced some Muslims that their religion is under attack.

"U.S. foreign policy has helped directly in the rise of the Islamists," said Gamal Al Banna, a liberal Egyptian writer and brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Privately, U.S. officials acknowledge that they are concerned about anti-Americanism and the power it has given Islamic-based parties at the ballot box, but they insist the danger of extremist ideology can be contained.

Barry F. Lowenkron, an assistant secretary of state, referred to the risks that extremist governments - Islamic-based or not - may come to power as "bumps in the road."

Although Washington has historically kept Islamists at arm's length, the popular support for religious parties is difficult for any advocate of democracy to ignore.

Across the region, Islamist parties have proven themselves best poised to gain from any democratic opening. They enjoy easy access to mosques. Their slogans tap into deep religious feelings, and their legacy of social and welfare work gives them easy credibility on the street.

And many religious politicians stopped talking about Islamic republics and became unabashed democracy cheerleaders.

"We believe in democracy. The ballot box has the final say in whether you'll be ruling or not. We don't believe in any other means of taking power," said Mahdi Akef, the supreme guide of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

But many Islamic groups remain ambiguous about how they plan to wield their newfound power. Some analysts believe that if Islamists felt strong enough, they would seek to curb the rights of non-Muslims and women; downgrade relations with the United States and Israel; or impose a harsh Islamic law. Hamas and Hezbollah have been labeled terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.

"I'm sure the Brothers still want to apply an old-fashioned version of sharia, treat Coptic Christians as second-class citizens and stay in power forever when they form the government," said Emad Gad, an Israel expert at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "They are coming up with all these moderate slogans so as not to frighten anyone, especially the West."

Other analysts say Islamists are not to be feared. They argue that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which shook Egypt by winning nearly 20 percent of the seats in the recent parliamentary election, are evolving into more moderate organizations as they gain political power.

Some analysts regard Iraq as the prime example of a troubling flaw in the U.S. push for democracy. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, apparently eager to prod Iraq's Shiite majority to political power, brushed aside an initial American timetable of five to 10 years for Iraq's emergence as a fully sovereign democracy and effectively hijacked the electoral pace.

In the end, the campaign hardened sectarian and ethnic identities. With little time to build democratic institutions, many fear that Iraq's election is merely a precursor to civil war.

Megan K. Stack in Cairo and Tyler Marshall in Washington write for the Los Angeles Times. The Times' Hossam el Hamalawy in Cairo contributed to this article.

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