Muslim Zealots Gain Strength in Arab World
CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ From the Persian Gulf to Morocco, Muslim zealots are gaining strength through elections and violence, to the dismay of Arab governments.
Lebanon’s pro-Iranian Hezbollah, long viewed as an umbrella group for kidnappers of Westerners, made a strong showing in the first round of parliamentary elections last week.
Its success dealt a blow to the pro-Syrian government and forced the resignation of Hussein Husseini, the speaker of parliament, who lost to a Hezbollah candidate.
Observers expect Hezbollah will also do well in the two remaining rounds. If the government decides to call off the voting as a result, Hezbollah may resort to terror tactics.
In Algeria, the army has been fighting extremists since an almost certain fundamentalist election victory was negated eight months ago.
Jordan has managed to escape significant violence. King Hussein legalized the moderate Muslim Brotherhood and, in free elections in 1989, it became the largest bloc in parliament.
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, such fundamentalist groups as Islamic Jihad and Hamas are gaining favor among young people angered by unemployment and occupation.
Religious extremists have made some gains in local elections, but PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s mainstream Fatah movement still holds most of the seats in unions and chambers of commerce in the occupied territories.
There is violent confrontation in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt between Muslim militants and governments. Extremists launch bloody attacks on the authorities, who react with violence and mass arrests.
Hundreds of people are on trial for murder, weapons possession and conspiracy to overthrow governments. Tens of thousands have been arrested, many held for long periods without charge and allegedly tortured.
In Tunisia, 279 members and supporters of the banned Annahda fundamentalist group went on trial July 10, all charged with plotting to overthrow President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Fourty-six have been sentenced to life in prison, including Annahda’s leader-in-exile, Rachid Ghanouchi.
The two top leaders of the banned Islamic Salvation Front in neighboring Algeria were sentenced in July to 12 years in prison each.
In Egypt, thousands of arrests followed violent attacks on police and Coptic Christians that began in March. Fifty-eight people have been killed in terror attacks and gunfights with security forces.
Egypt’s fundamentalist opposition ranges from the Muslim Brotherhood, outlawed but tolerated, to violence-prone Muslim extremists.
The Brotherhood, founded in 1928 and persecuted by Egypt’s first president, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, has renounced violence and entered parliamentary elections.
It has a strong presence in most unions and professional syndicates, and some observers feel there is unspoken sympathy between the Brotherhood and the radical groups waging war on the government.
″Confrontation will not subside; it’s a battle to the end,″ said Hussein Amin, a retired diplomat and noted writer on Islamic affairs.
Even though some groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, agree to take part in elections, more radical groups will not, he said.
Amin believes there is close coordination between religious extremists.
″What happens in Algeria will happen in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan,″ he said.
Fundamentalism’s appeal is strongest in countries with corruption-ridden governments that cannot deal with economic crises.
But it also is gaining in such wealthy Persian Gulf states as Kuwait, where leaders of the movement say they hope to win one-third of the seats in October parliamentary elections.
Governments in the region accuse Iran, the sponsor of Hezbollah, and Sudan, which has become one of its closest allies, of financing and training extremists.
Both deny the charges, but Hassan Turabi, believed to be the power behind the Sudan’s military government, has founded an organization to coordinate activities of radical Muslim groups.
″Despite the difficulties faced, the Islamic awakening is a wide-ranging historical phenomenon that is developing toward gaining force,″ Turabi, 60, told Sudan’s official news agency.
Some government policies appear to have backfired.
In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s government has paraded its own Islamic credentials - for instance, forgiving taxes on buildings housing mosques.
Hala Mustafa, an expert on fundamentalism at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said the government has gone too far to establish its piety.
″This had a reverse effect,″ he said. ″It has led to a tremendous increase in the number of mosques, (which) are being used to recruit people to extremist groups.″
Just as the extremists cooperate, Amin said, so do the governments they are trying to overthrow.
When Algeria’s hard-line High Command Council confronted the extremists, he said, Egypt was encouraged to back away from its traditionally more compromising approach.
As Amin put it: ″The government realized that force pays and there is no need for compromise.″