Prospects for the spread of Islamic Revolution

The question that now concerns the Western world is whether more Islamist governments are going to come to power in the Middle East. Such governments might emerge by revolution, coup d’ état or election - and in all these areas the prospects, from a Western point of view, are reassuring.

Hardly anyone in the Middle East imagines that an Islamist government can again come to power by revolution - the movement is too discredited among the middle classes. This is of crucial importance, because to be successful a revolutionary movement needs not just the support of the disillusioned masses but the acquiescence of the middle classes, who run the army, the police, the internal security services and the government machine as a whole. While these functionaries continue to go to work and do their jobs there is a limit to what mass demonstrations and terrorist bombings can do to a government. Most important, while a head of state can see that he has the loyalty of these classes he will retain the self-confidence and the will to stay in power. It is only when he realises that the underpinnings of his régime - the tools through which he asserts his authority -are deserting him, that he sees he has no future and goes into exile. Then those elements of his security forces and bureaucracy which have remained loyal quickly collapse or go over to the other side. This was the sequence of events that occurred in Iran in 1978 and 1979. The Shah’s confidence and his government’s ability to see a way out of its difficulties were destroyed by a strike of oil workers which deprived him of revenues, and then by a collapse in the belief of the Tehran middle classes - in and out of government - that the régime was going to survive.

What is different in the 1990s is that middle classes elsewhere in the Middle East have seen what became of Iran. In Egypt and, especially, Algeria there are many people in the bureaucracy who despise their governments, but they no longer imagine that an Islamist régime would be an improvement. In Algeria this sentiment is reinforced by the very strongly secular, French influenced, attitudes of much of the middle classes.

The chances of an Islamist régime coming to power by military coup d’ état in an Arab country are not often discussed. It is true that it was a coup in 1989 that ushered in the Islamist régime in Sudan, but this coup was the only one there has been in the region since 1970 - when President Assad came to power in Syria. It is still possible that a coup could happen in an Arab country, but it is unlikely. Both the planning of coups and the prevention of them are arts, and Arab governments have now perfected the art of prevention - mainly through the employment of multiple and competing security services.

This leaves elections as a route to power. In Middle Eastern countries one generally hears figures of between 20 and 35 per cent given for the proportion of the electorate that might "vote Islamic" in a free poll. The upper end of this range could be sufficient to give an Islamist party an absolute majority in a parliament, under either the British "first past the post" system, or the French system, which has two rounds of voting, the second being for a run-off between the two candidates who do best in the first. It was the French system that nearly brought the Front Islamique du Salut to power in Algeria in 1992, in spite of well under half the electorate voting, and the party getting less than half the votes cast.

Since 1992 Arab governments that hold elections have taken steps to avoid a repetition of the Algerian experience. Some of those, including the Algerian government, that did not have in place sufficiently strong bans on parties based on religion, language or ethnic group, have passed new legislation to reinforce this principle. Others - notably Jordan - have altered their voting systems. If these barriers to Islamist parties ever seem likely to be ineffective, there is no doubt that most Arab governments would intervene in an election to change the vote. As a last resort they would cancel elections. Even in Turkey, which in comparison with Arab states has a strong democratic tradition, the army has recently intervened to push an Islamist dominated government out of office.

The unfortunate aspect - from an Arab middle class and Western point of view - of the governments’ policies since the Algerian débacle of 1991-92 is that they have brought the process of political reform in the Middle East virtually to a halt. In the later 1980s, partly to compensate their people for the introduction of tough IMF prescribed measures of economic reform, some Arab governments were taking steps in a democratic direction. The country that was moving fastest, and most rashly, was Algeria. Others were Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia. Now the process has come to a halt in Egypt and Tunisia, where presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali appear to have been traumatised by what they saw in Algeria. In the last two years the Algerians have restarted some very cautious reform. The only country moving quite quickly (by Arab standards) in a democratic direction is Morocco, where the reform process began in 1992.

If revolution and coup d’ état are unlikely, and governments have blocked elections as a route to power, the most likely context for an Islamist régime coming to control a Middle Eastern country would be civil war. It was the Russian invasion of 1979, followed by a ten year war against the invader and then a civil war, that was the background to Taleban’s success in Afghanistan. In the 1980s it was possible to imagine an Islamist party coming to power in Lebanon - possibly causing the partition of the state - but for the fact that ultimately Syria would have intervened to prevent it.

At present there are two places in the region where one can speculate about civil war and/or the disintegration of authority laying the ground for an Islamist régime. One is Palestine, where it is quite easy to imagine Yasser Arafat’s administration collapsing and Hamas taking its place. If this were to happen the Israelis might occupy the Palestinian territories, provoking a new intifadah (uprising). They might well suppress such an uprising, but they might, like other occupying powers in other parts of the world before them, eventually be forced to withdraw in a hurry - then sealing themselves off from an Islamist state on their doorstep.

The other country which could fall into chaos is Iraq. The present hope of the United States and its allies is that Saddam Hussein will sooner or later be overthrown by someone in the army or security forces, and that this person will be sufficiently distant from the present régime to be acceptable to the US, so that sanctions can be lifted, and at the same time be able to keep control of his country. It is accepted, though, in Washington and London, that there is a risk that a coup leader will not be able to establish control, that there will be further coups and a cascade of régimes, that "war lords" will emerge controlling different parts of the country, and that Iraq will descend into civil war. It might be that the war would eventually be won by an Islamist party.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | April 1999

Previous Page TOC Next Page