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Raghida Dergham Headshot

Talk of the Muslim Brotherhood's Role in the Arab Spring Is Exaggerated

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Amman -- There is increasing talk at international and regional forums of the rising "stock value" of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, as part of a well-orchestrated strategy to hijack the Revolution. There is also increasing talk of Western acceptance of what is today being referred to as "moderate Islam," pointing to the Muslim Brotherhood as the party most qualified to apply the Turkish model -- sometimes referred to as "secular Islam" -- in the Arab region. There is some exaggeration there which should be paid heed to, so as for it not to lead to miscalculation, unrealistic assessments, the overlooking of important keys to change, and making grave mistakes. This is because the Islamists, whether moderate or extremist, have not yet taken control of the areas of Arab uprising or awakening. They are working in a carefully organized manner in order to benefit from the opportunity created by the youth and the masses, and they are planning to gain the West's cooperation and trust until they reach power; then after that happens, things may take on a different form. This is why they are exaggerating their influence, their demands, and the impression that they are strong and are dominating the revolutions of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Syria. This not only helps them to score points, but also to suggest that there is a structural weakness to those referred to as moderates, secularists, the enlightened or the youths, who have mastered the process of destroying regimes but appear unskilled at building states.

We must be wary not to fall into the impression being drafted by those who seek to mislead us, with the aim of absorbing the vitality of the young Arab awakening and of channeling it in the service of traditional dreams for which preparations have been made for years. We must be wary of isolating ourselves in the corner of fear of taking the initiative to provide a post-revolutionary political framework. The Arab region is still at the beginning of the road to the change it needs, and this is not the time to weaken or to yield to fear-mongering -- it is the time to take the initiative and engage in state-building and then in political competition. For one thing, the latter is one of the bases of democracy -- competing over influence on society and on its fate, so that it may not again fall prey to ideologies, doctrines and the obsession of holding power in order to subject people.

Perhaps such boldness will come from an ordinary woman, and perhaps it will come from a king, who sympathizes with the people's feelings and responds to the requirements of the times, but the road is long and it would be useful to carefully examine some of its highlights.

The Jordanian Monarch, King Abdullah II, is not in an enviable position, as the economic crisis is restricting his capabilities and the Palestinian problem is undermining his ability to focus exclusively on domestic problems. Yet the King, who is still young and who understands the ambitions and the language of the youths, can certainly see that the solution is not to escape forward and postpone reaching decisions on the challenges at hand. He is perfectly well aware that there is no escape from radical reforms in Jordan, if the country is to remain stable and overcome the current challenges and obstacles. King Abdullah is able to accept important reforms, because he realizes that there is near consensus in Jordan over the fact that the monarchy represents the guarantor of the country's stability and survival. Being confidently at ease with the fact that the people adhere to Jordan's monarchy as a safety valve gives King Abdullah the ability to make painful decisions, without flattery or arrogance, but rather with the hope of repairing the difficult situation in Jordan, which has reached a high degree of tension.

This week, Marouf Al-Bakhit's government fell by a decision from the King, meeting the desires of the opposition and of the people. The Jordanian Monarch appointed Awn Al-Khasawneh to form the new government. The royal letter of appointment is almost a guide for the demands of the youth, in another awakening in the Arab region: Political reform and introducing laws and legislation to govern political life is the government's primary task. Its other tasks include: laying the foundations for transparency, accountability and the rule of law; achieving justice and combating nepotism and favoritism; holding to account the corrupt and the corruptors without delay; allowing for freedoms in the media while maintaining professionalism and credibility; improving the standard of living for citizens; and thoroughly reviewing municipal elections in order to ensure fairness and laying the foundations for decentralization.

Such headlines are quite attractive and grand, but "the devil is in the details." The details are in implementation, and implementation is not a task for Awn Al-Khasawneh and his government alone, but is also among the tasks of the Jordanian Monarch, on whose shoulders fall increasing responsibilities and growing challenges with the eruption of the Arab Spring. Al-Khasawneh comes to the office of Prime Minister with qualifications in law and a message to all segments of Jordanian society, signifying that they will all be included in governmental counsel and representation, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet those who brought down Al-Bakhit's government are not the Muslim Brotherhood, but it rather was the clans of Eastern Jordan who did so. They have increasingly been complaining, and not just of the rise of Jordan's Palestinians to high-ranking social and political positions. It is noteworthy that the complicated relationship between Jordan's Palestinians and the state, which has witnessed difficult phases, is perhaps today going through a phase of calm -- not one of truce -- while the relationship is becoming exceptionally tense between Eastern Jordan and the monarchy.

There is a particularity to the relationship between King and the clans in terms of loyalty as well as in terms of expectations and traditions, and it is the clans who are today shedding doubt on reform, because they view it as connected to corruption and as having come at their expense. Economic reform in Jordan has comprised privatization, but privatization in the mind of some of the clans in Jordan means robbing them of their powers, property and privileges. At the same time, the clans realize that the guarantee of rule and the safety valve in Jordan is the throne, because it has ensured stability for nearly 60 years. Yet they are today, for the first time, coming out in demonstrations. Of course, there is criticism from other parties in the opposition, as some of them consider privatization to have been exhausted and exploited in a context of operations conducted outside of state institutions. There are those who are justified in the accusations of corruption they are making, and there are those who are exaggerating to the point of slander. There are those who are demanding a reasonable electoral law, and there are political parties who demand that the Prime Minister be elected to office, bearing in mind that they are the only organized minority -- and talk here is of the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is certainly a need to categorize powers and organize them in a manner bearable for the country, as well as a need for structural changes that would give the government real powers. Yet this does not mean that the Muslim Brotherhood is right to demand an elected Prime Minister before other political parties are enabled to work in an organized manner, so as to have the right and the ability to compete. There is no need to magnify the role or the rights of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in a country in which it has a presence but does not represent the majority.

Competent leadership is one that is capable of interpreting people's demands and sympathizing with ordinary citizens. Political salons sometimes stir up this kind of clamor and the language of blame and of theorizing, and Jordan's salon yearns for politics that would revitalize it; yet it is not focused on the work necessary within a program of reform and of saving the country. The working class and the middle class excel at enthusiasm for change, in demagoguery that sometime uses the term "the street" to shield itself with it. There is a crisis of confidence in Jordan, a crisis that requires swift and radical resolution within the framework of a collective program to save the economy in a country lacking in many capabilities. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements make use of such fertile soil to fill the vacuum in Jordan, but they cannot represent a burden or a challenge for the state. Of course, they must be taken into consideration in the political process, so that they may participate in proportion to their influence. Their actual size has repeatedly been estimated, in Jordan and in other places, as not exceeding 20 to 30 percent in the most extreme cases.

When the state is unable to relieve the people of poverty, mosques come in as financial, social, investment and security institutions, drafting instructions to emerge from poverty through grants, hospitals and housing projects, and also brainwashing seminars. This is what the Salafist Jamaa Islamiya, the Muslim Brotherhood and others have done, peddling themselves as the new identity of the Arab region.

Egypt today is going through the most difficult of phases, because the government is unable to consolidate power when it appears to have neither the dignity of the law, nor security, nor the ability to invest. Poverty is ubiquitous in the country, and Egyptians are surrendering to despair and waiting for divine mercy. An institution has been toppled in Egypt but no alternative for it has emerged. Thus the formula now rests between a hesitant military and an extremism bent on its course aimed at taking hold of power. In spite of all this, it is not true that the whole country has fallen under the control of the Islamists -- whether they are extremists or moderates. The civil institution in Egypt is in need of funds and aid if it truly is to dream of Egypt following the Turkish model of "moderate Islam." Indeed, there are no democratic institutions in Egypt as there are in Turkey, preventing the complete and irreversible usurpation of power, nor does Egypt have a history of Atatürkist secularism. Moreover, Egypt is not located in Europe, as half of Turkey is, to prevent it from slipping into ideological or religious single-party rule.

The Islamists in Libya were perhaps more controlled, because mosques were never used in Libya as institutions of charitable reform. Yet in Libya what are most prominent are the Western illusions that Islamists will come to power then leave it according to the rules of democracy. There the West is making the mistake of undermining moderation, secularism and the youth.

In Yemen, where the West is obsessed with Al-Qaeda, talk is now of the Muslim Brotherhood, and there are those who consider that the Houthis are also qualified to dwarf the Salafists at the military level. Such talk is about a country in which the Arab Spring has erupted for change towards the better, not towards a balance of terror among Islamists. This why Yemen today needs investment in its youths, in order to boost the desire for democracy and decent living, not to mobilize it within a terrifying balance of terror.

The Arab road to change must not fall prey to illusions, misinformation and exaggeration, and fall into a fierce trap to take hold of power. And what those who hold the instruments of reform, moderation and enlightenment should do is not yield to scare mongering or extortion, and to remain engaged in this fateful battle, without retreating or resigning. Those who have promised reform from within the state in numerous Arab countries should contribute practically and effectively to the program of reforms by fulfilling their promises and pledges, and by giving up some of their privileges in order to earn the trust that is of the greatest necessity for leadership.

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