“The Muslim Brotherhood is a totalitarian movement”
The Islamic scholar Bassam Tibi does not believe that Egypt’s victorious Islamists will be in the mood to compromise. In Tunisia he sees better conditions for democratisation.
How may the Arab spring be characterised?At the end of the Eighties, parallel to the collapse of Communism, a wave of democratisation swept over the world. However, the Arab regimes proved resistant to this development, preserving a piece of the Cold War. But a year ago all this changed. The fall of the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali released a wave of democratisation throughout the region. Imagine you are standing at a zebra crossing in front of a red light. Everyone is just standing there, but as soon as someone goes all the others follow.
Do you see the Arab spring as a success?In the Arab world a change was initiated that raised many hopes. And from January to February it indeed looked as if there would be a democratisation. But the necessary prerequisites for that to happen are not present. Democracy does not require only elections. Democracy requires economic, cultural and institutional conditions to be supportive. Democracy means giving the right for diverse views to exist and to be expressed without sanction. We see the issue in Iraq: the Saddam regime collapsed with the help of the Americans. However, now the Iraqis are killing each other because they have not learned to tolerate differences. Since the withdrawal of the Americans, a Shiite dictatorship over the Sunni minority is developing under the watch of prime minister Malachi.
However, the democratisation in Tunisia seems to be making more progress.Tunisia has the broadest civil society, with a broad intellectual class. I met the leader of the Tunisian Islamic Ennahada Party, in Copenhagen. For an Islamist he came across as very gentle. The Tunisian Islamists will be more in the mood to compromise, and they won’t be so set on attacking others. With the Muslim Brotherhood it is quite a different matter.
Why is that?
I see the Muslim Brotherhood as a totalitarian movement, and not as a democratic movement. The Muslims Brotherhood is organised on the basis of ten levels of membership. Starting out in the movement only earns one the status of a ‘sympathiser’. To reach the heights levels requires 5-6 years. This time is used to test your absolute loyalty to the movement.
But many voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in the recent elections. The movement seems to be deeply entrenched in society.The liberal democratic forces were not well enough organised. The Islamists are often the only political force in the whole region, and they are well organised. In the past they operated underground with extreme care, so that the security service could not infiltrate the groups. It was different for the secular groups. The Islamists also built a network in Europe which aided the opposition in the Arabic countries. The Islamists in Egypt conducted themselves very intelligently. They reached a truce agreement with Mubarak’s security service. But as soon as they saw the regime beginning to disintegrate they went to Tahrir Square to join the demonstrators. And now they are dominant.
Many Egyptians see the Muslim Brotherhood as a solution to their problems. The Muslim Brotherhood was very active in supporting the socially underprivileged.In addition to their organisational strength, the Islamists possess an immense capability to mobilise by religious slogans. In all the Arabic countries the population is growing faster than the economy. This results in a serious crisis. In addition there is a political crisis that requires democratic solutions. Islamists in turn say: Islam is the solution to the economic political and social crisis. However, Islam is a Religion. I myself am a practicing Muslim. In Islam one has to believe in God, pray five times a day, fast for Ramadan, pay taxes for the poor, and, if one can afford it, make a pilgrimage to Mecca. But how can these solve all the problems? The Islamists would answer: The sharia-state is the solution. However, sharia - as the Islamists understand sharia - is a catalogue of prohibitions. How is it possible to fashion a modern economic policy on this? If the Islamists come to power and implement Sharia in the way they understand it, they will not be able to find the solutions to the problems in those countries.
What geopolitical impact does the transformation have on such states as Turkey and Israel?Israel is paying a high price, since the basic belief of Islamism, in addition to the sharia-state, is anti-Semitism. If the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt takes power, one of its first acts will be the annulment of the Camp David peace treaty with Israel. The winner in all this is Turkey, since it is the only economically and politically stable country in the Middle East. The first leader to visit Tunisia, Egypt and Libya after the upheavals was the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has been unabashed about, as he sees it, Turkey’s rightful headship role. However, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood disagree. They are cooperative, but there are limits to the love. Erdogan said in Cairo: our party is an Islamic conservative party, however Islam and politics need to be separate. A statement that the Muslim Brotherhood was not too happy with.
What are you predictions for the coming year?I don’t believe that the revolutions in the Arabic world will lead to democracy. There will be a high level of uncertainty that will be used by the Islamists to establish their vision of stability. The present trends indicate that the authoritarian states of yesterday will give way to sharia-based states. The new sharia order is even more authoritarian, and therefore there should be no illusion of democracy.
About the interview subject:
Bassam Tibi (born 1944 in Damascus) is a renowned Islamic scholar. In his last position he was at the University of Göttingen. Tibi studied history, philosophy and social sciences in Frankfurt, in part under Habermas and Adorno. To date he has written 28 books (in German). His latest book is “Euro-Islam. The solution to a conflict of civilisation” (Euro-Islam. Die Lösung eines Zivilisationskonflikts).