Zimbabwe: Tsvangirai’s leadership more tragic than magic

Morgan Tsvangirai’s leadership of a transitional government in Zimbabwe is “non-negotiable“, his deputy Thokozani Khupe said in South Africa today. He was speaking after a meeting organized by civic groups and South Africa’s COSATU trade union federation. A coalition of Zimbabwean civic groups had earlier called for a transitional authority to be headed by a neutral figure.

While negotiations continue between Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change continue, one observer argues that miscalculation, loss of nerve and bad counsel led Tsvangirai to hand Mugabe victory on a plate. The MDC was already split going into the elections, after a breakaway faction, led by Arthur Mutambara and Welshman Ncube, based in western Zimbabwe, attracted many of the MDC’s professional supporters. Many of them had been alienated, argues Mugabe biographer Stephen Chan, by Tsvangirai’s performance.

 ”A hit-and-miss politician-capable of strokes of genius but also prone to periods of wayward and ineffectual leadership”, he is also “used to like teasing Zimbabwean intellectuals for thinking too much.” Tsvangirai showed his Machiavellian side in the late 1990s when the MDC split from the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), in which it had incubated, “just when that body was becoming the largest civil society group Zimbabwe had ever known.”

Chan concludes:

“Ironically, the real threat to [Tsvangirai's] long-term future may not come from Zanu-PF but from within his own MDC. It is here that personal and political tragedies intersect. Many within the party are disillusioned with his recent performance. It is by no means certain he will remain at the top. If there is a succession, this will involve as many factional fights within the MDC as are likely to occur in a post-Mugabe Zanu-PF.”

Islamists and democracy (II)

Tamara Cofman Wittes’s Journal of Democracy article has prompted a debate on “Categories of Islamism“. If Egypt’s government had not stifled the emergence of new political parties, the country could by now have something along the lines of Morocco’s Party of Justice and Development, suggests Michele Dunne, editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin. “But so far the authorities and the ruling National Democratic Party believe it wiser to close off nearly all avenues for legitimate political competition.”

The Mubarak regime’s fear “is not that the Brotherhood is too extreme or will become so,” she argues, “but rather that it is becoming too pragmatic and therefore too appealing to voters in a more open system.”

Others are skeptical that moderate Islamist groups have fully adopted a democratic ethos and accepted electoral success instead of religious authority as the basis of political legitimacy. Isn’t it possible, asks Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations, that Islamist participation is the result of strategic calculation? “Islamists may decide to participate in elections because they perceive electoral procedures as the most efficient means of accumulating political power,” he suggests, “as opposed to say, fomenting revolution or embracing democracy.”

Islamists and democracy: institutions matter

Institutional constraints are critical factors in determining the character and evolution of Islamist parties, according to a recent forum of expert commentators. The panel comprised contributors to a symposium on Islamist parties and democracy in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy.

“The quality of the political environment determines the quality of the participants,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, author of Freedom’s Unsteady March: America’s Role in Building Arab Democracy. The democratic credentials of non-violent Islamist parties should be gauged by their positions on minorities and women, pluralism and political alternation, and the constitutional function of religious authority.  

Without the pressure of open competition to make them explain where they stand on crucial issues, Islamists can sit back and act as general vehicles for discontent,” Wittes argues. An Islamist party’s democratic commitment cannot be definitively tested “until there is a meaningful democratic political process in which it can choose to engage.”

The Islamist parties of the Arab world emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood which, the Hudson Institute’s Hillel Fradkin observed, is historically and doctrinally hostile to political parties and to democracy. The key issue for contemporary democracy turns on the question of shari’a and “whether an Islamist party and the state that it might govern can admit the legitimacy of some political and legal authority in addition to (and somehow combined with) the authority of Islamic law.”

The spectrum of Islamist parties reveals different patterns and models, said Carnegie’s Amr Hamzawy. A first cluster, comprising “de-ideologized” Islamist forces in Morocco, Algeria, Kuwait and Bahrain, is characterized by relatively stable and legal participation in a semi-pluralist system with institutional checks and balances.

Yet these relatively pragmatic, policy-driven parties are being challenged by rank-and-file members and supporters frustrated by the absence of tangible benefits. Such moderate Islamist leaders need “to come up with new arguments capable of convincing their popular bases of the need to persist in participatory politics as an indispensable long-term strategy in spite of poor paybacks in the short run.”

A second group in Egypt and Jordan has experienced cycles or unstable participation and repression. These Islamist parties remain torn between electoral and ideological imperatives, but they have yet to make the shift observed in a third group – in Yemen and Sudan – where Islamists have moved from partnership with the government to outright opposition. Hamzawy fears that “growing skepticism surrounding political participation could shake the commitment of moderate Islamists to peaceful change.”

Islamists participate in politics for a degree of protection from authoritarian ruling elites and to prove to their supporters that they can deliver reform. There is a direct correlation between Islamists’ “ability to participate unhindered in the political process and their level of political maturity.”

In this respect, the experience of Turkey’s AKP is instructive, argues Ihsan Dagi. While acknowledging its Islamist roots, the party now eschews that label and describes itself as “conservative democratic.” Ideology takes second place to pragmatism, policy and service provision. ”

Bassam Tibi is not convinced. Both violent jihadists and non-violent institutional Islamists are committed to establishing nizam Islami (the Islamic order) based on shari’a. Tactically, the AKP has chosen an incremental, constitutional path to power, but its non-inclusive approach to rivals betrays its true nature.

“Islamism is not compatible with democracy,” Tibi insists, because its “sine qua non is the notion of din-wa-dawla (the organic unity of state and religion).” Institutional Islamists compete in the democratic process for instrumental reasons, he argues, “but they refuse to accept the full measure of democracy, including the political culture of democratic pluralism.”  

Even the most moderate of the Islamist parties appear duplicitous, notes Malika Zeghal, another symposium contributor. Morocco’s Justice and Development Party claims that it no longer aspires to establish an “Islamic state”, but its close ally, the Movement for Unity and Reform, continues to use the term.

Rejecting the Islamist vs. secularist paradigm promoted by the Arab world’s autocrats, the National Endowment for Democracy‘s Laith Kubba stressed the diversity of political Islam and the absence of any clear political prescriptions emerging from the Koran, hadith or shari’a which, in the latter’s case, is not codified and open to diverse interpretations.

Institutions matter, he told the Washington meeting, and the political imperative for Arab democrats is to strengthen the region’s civic culture. Drawing on the example of Turkey’s AKP, Kubba believes “a gradual transition to democracy will work in favor of pragmatism and moderation, even among conservative and religious constituents.”

“Instead of worrying whether Islamists are real democrats, our goal should be to help fortify democratic and liberal institutions and actors so that no group – Islamist or otherwise – can subvert them,” argues Tareq Masoud. He does not accept that Islamist parties are poised to win free and fair elections, or that political participation will necessarily induce moderation and pragmatism.

Masoud defends Arab democrats from charges of elitism and political timidity. Authoritarian regimes routinely harass and deny political space to liberal democratic forces.

“Rather than wondering whether Islamists are not as bad as we think they are,” he argues, “those who wish to see democratic reform in the region would do better to bend their efforts toward lifting the government yoke off parties whose democratic bona fides are not the object of anguished speculation.”

Turkey’s AKP escapes ban, tensions disguise ‘Islamo-secular convergence’

Caption: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and 70 other AK party members escaped a 5-year ban on political activity.

Turkey’s ruling AK Party will not be banned, the head of the Constitutional Court decided today. But the party will be denied state funding.  There had been speculation that Turkey’s highest court could decide as soon as today whether to ban the ruling AK Party following the public prosecutor’s charges that the party is undermining the secular constitution.

The case against the AK Party, re-elected with 47 percent of the vote last year, has been described as “a brazen conspiracy to undo the liberal reforms” recently implemented as part of Turkey’s possible accession to the European Union.

Although the party would probably have re-emerged under a new name, a ban would have undercut efforts to promote reform and democracy in the Middle East, warned F. Stephen Larrabee, co-author of a recent analysis of Turkish Islam. Moderate Islamists in the Middle East would have seen the party’s closure “as proof that it is impossible to achieve their political goals by democratic means and could turn to more radical solutions,” he wrote.

The current crisis cannot be reduced to a struggle between secularists and Islamists, but is in fact a power struggle between elites, Omer Taspinar, director of the Brookings’ Turkey Project, told a recent Washington meeting. His assessment is echoed by Ihsan Dagi, a professor at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, who argues in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy, that “looking at the AKP’s platform, its public discourse, its social base, and above all its record in government, one does not see an Islamist faction, but rather a globalist, market-oriented, pro-western, and populist political party”.

The AK party’s illiberal tendencies have come to the fore in its second term of office, according to Chatham House analyst Fadi Hakura, as it has “resorted to Islamic populism and confrontational, majoritarian politics.” But he is hopeful that recent trends, notably an Islamo-secular convergence, suggest that the country “could be on the cusp of a novel style of politics, emerging as a phoenix from the gathering ashes of the ideologues’ battles.” He notes that the Office for Religious Affairs or Diyanet, is engaged in a comprehensive re-interpretation of Islamic texts.

The AK Party’s critics may have legitimate concerns about creeping authoritarian or Islamizing tendencies, but a judicial coup is an inappropriate and illegitimate response. Instead, the AKP’s opponents “should be working towards the establishment of a legitimate political opposition and demanding reforms that will safeguard institutional checks and balances,” argues Diba Nigar Goksel, senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative.

Egypt: ‘authoritarian’ Muslim Brotherhood ambivalent on political violence

Caption: Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Akef, praised Osama Bin-Laden and defended Al-Qaeda

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has been embarrassed by one of its leading member’s reference to reviving the Brotherhood’s clandestine ‘special organization’ associated with the group’s violent past. State Council member Abdul Sattar al Maliji’s statement comes at a time of internal turmoil, notes the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper, with “the Brotherhood dismissing the members well known for their democratic and transparent tendencies, and …. advocates of confrontation are increasingly gaining ground.”

Relatively moderate elements within the Brotherhood have lost ground lately as more conservative Salafist forces gain strength, particularly within the rank-and-file membership. The International Crisis Group recently argued that the Egyptian state should “formally incorporate the Muslim Brothers or an associated political party into the political realm and open the political arena to a genuine democratic contest.”

The organization’s 2005 electoral gains confirmed its position “as an extremely well-organized and deeply rooted political force,” the ICG notes, while the state’s attempts to deny it political space have “noticeably degraded the quality of parliamentary and political life, entrenching the [ruling National Democratic Party's] virtual monopoly and dealing a severe blow to the legal, non-Islamist opposition.”

Recent events confirm that the Brotherhood is essentially authoritarian, dominated by a hierarchical and centralized leadership according to “primitive undemocratic criteria“, says Khalil Al-Anani, an expert on political Islam and democratization and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Although it has renounced the “armed struggle”, the history of the Muslim Brotherhood – and statements by its current leaders – indicates some ambivalence towards political violence and terrorism.  In an interview with Elaph, its Supreme Leader, Mohammed Akef, recently praised Osama Bin-Laden and defended Al-Qaeda. 

Most certainly he is a mujahid,” he said of the world’s most-wanted terrorist. “I do not doubt his sincerity in resisting occupation for the sake of God Almighty.” Akef defended  Al-Qaeda “as an ideology and organization [that] came as a result of injustice and corruption” and stated, “Yes, I support its activities against the occupier, but not against the people.”

Akif also conceded that although the Brotherhood was non-violent within Egypt, it has sent and would continue to “send fighters to resist the occupation, whether in Iraq or in Palestine.”