"When Islam upsets the traditions you have to set it aside," said Haj Bastami, a 60-year-old sharif (a man who claims descent from the Prophet's family) when a mediator tried to convince him to consent to his daughter's marriage to a non-sharif man. This happened in the southern Egyptian city of Qena, a place increasingly becoming one of the major centers of Islamic activities in Egypt. As a southerner, I was not surprised by Haj Bastami's response, for his views represent the majority opinion among people of his generation who refuse to marry their daughters into what they consider to be "inferior tribes." What surprised me, however, is that his son, an "Islamic" leader in the community and a graduate of the theological university Al-Azhar concurred with his father's "un-Islamic'' views.1
The response of Haj Bastami and the acquiescence of his son to these un-Islamic views confront us with a challenging thesis: When Islam and the tribe face off in Arab politics, it is almost inevitably the tribe that wins. This is what the recent Jordanian and Yemeni elections have shown. Not only do these elections support this thesis, but the relationship between the tribe and Islam throughout Arab Islamic history seems to validate this concept as well. Although this statement is important as far as the nature of politics in traditional parts of the Arab world are concerned-the Gulf states, Yemen and Jordan-more important are the implications of this thesis for countries that have taken moderate strides toward modernization, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. Also of major importance is the implication of the tribe-Islam relationship for the question of democratization and what is now known as the "Islamic threat."
This essay will begin by showing how the results of the Jordanian and Yemeni elections, as well as the history of tribe-Islam relations in the past, lend support to the superiority of legitimate social organizations, such as the tribe, over ideologies, including Islam. The second part of this essay will be devoted to assessing the power of the tribe or its equivalent in "modernizing" countries and its implications for democratization in the light of the current "Islamic threat" to the existing regimes. Finally I will attempt to provide an alternative interpretation concerning the nature of the Islamic threat and to make the case that democracy in the Arab world is no longer merely an option but a historical imperative. First, however, what happened in Jordan and Yemen?
In the recent Jordanian election, the Islamic Action Front (IAF) won sixteen seats; independent candidates who sympathized with the Islamists won six seats. Although the Islamists remain the strongest among the opposition parties in the Jordanian parliament, this year's election represents a setback for them, since they had 38 seats in the previous parliament. Tribal leaders, on the other hand, won 49 seats, with the remaining ten seats divided between leftists and nationalists, including one seat for the feminist Tujan Al-Faisal.2 In fact, one can argue that the tribes of Jordan won 55 seats because the six independent Islamists did not win on the basis of the AIF platform but rather used their tribal affiliations to secure the votes. Even some Islamists within the IAF, especially those from outside major cities like Amman, Irbid, Alzarka and Alsalt, won because of their tribal bases. For instance, Abdul Lateef Arabiat, the speaker of the IAF in the previous Parliament, lost because his tribe endorsed another candidate, Hashim Aldabbas. In some areas where the tribes dominate local politics, the Islamists did not run; that was the case in Altermas in the north.
Except for the rise of tribal politics, nothing can account for the lslamists' loss of more than half their seats. Otherwise they had an advantage over other parties, namely that their organization was superior and four years older than the organizations of other contending parties. This is because the Islamists were the only opposition to run in 1989, the first real elections in Jordan since the suspension of elections in 1967.
The only elections permitted since that date were in 1984, when supplementary elections were held to fill the seats of parliamentarians who had died. By virtue of a political organization four years older, the Islamists won more seats than the leftists and other parties. However, four years were not enough for the Islamists to defeat the oldest, most legitimate and most persistent organization in Arab society: the tribe. Therefore the Islamists' loss of more than half the seats they had in the previous parliament is not due to their bad performance in government, although this might be a contributing factor. Even if it could explain the Islamists' loss, it cannot account for the tribal gains. Moreover, in contrast to the previous elections, the Islamists this time could have gained votes on their opposition to the PLO-Israeli peace treaty. What happened in Jordan is that the politically savvy King Hussein unleashed the power of the tribe to check the Islamists. The reality is that voters in the Arab world "appear to be swayed more by their family and tribal loyalties than by political platforms."3 Even Tujan Al-Faisal did not win because of her feminist ideology, but rather because of her ethnic background. Ms. Al-Faisal was contending for the Circassian minority seat according to the Jordanian quota system that grants specific seats for Christians and other minorities. Ms. Al-Faisal won in spite of the relatively small number of votes she got (1,800); another non-Circassian candidate running in the same district, Faris Al-Nabulsi, lost though he got more votes (4,000) than Ms. Al-Faisal.
Furthermore, the remaining 18 secular parties in Jordan failed miserably. Some eight parties failed to even gain a single seat. Thus, one can argue that non-tribal secularism was defeated even more resoundingly than Islamism.
Similarly, the tribe was a main factor in deciding the results of recent parliamentary elections in Yemen. The strong showing of Abdulla Al-Ahmar and his Isiah Islamic party, which won 62 seats, could not have been achieved if it were not for Sheikh Ahmar's position as chief of the Rashid tribal federation.
The party of President Ali Abdullah Salih, the General People's Congress (GPC), though it did not win a clear majority, came out on top with 123 seats. Although the General People's Congress had a far superior organization to other political parties, its leaders did not want to gamble with running on a policy platform alone. In fact, the pa11y's election slate favored candidates with strong tribal credentials over those who depended on party affiliation alone. Thus the Yemeni election celebrated the victory of traditional authority represented by old families like Al-Ahmar, Al-Shayef, Abu Shrab and Al-Ruweishan over modem authority represented by the Baathists, the Nasserites and pro-Westernization forces. The politically savvy urban candidates who did not want to lose wrapped themselves in tradition, either by wearing traditional dress and employing traditional symbols, or by running on an Islamist platform to ensure the backing of the Isiah party.4
Even the two women who won seats in the Yemeni elections should be viewed within the context of tribal politics more than their ideological commitment to women's issues or feminism. These women's tribal bases gave them the power to articulate feminist views. This has been the case throughout Islamic history: women could have a say in public life, not necessarily because Islam advocated this, but because their tribes would stand behind them if any man assaulted their characters, otherwise a threat to women in public life. Consider these two historical examples from the time of the prophet. In spite of her revolt against all that hinders individual freedom-including the hijab-and bringing a lawsuit against one of her husbands, Sukayna, the prophet's granddaughter, attended the Qurashi tribal council, the equivalent of parliament today, and debated with men. She could do this not because she was some sort of postfeminist but because she was from the Hashimite clan. The same can be said about Hind bint Utba, who played a central role in Mecca's opposition to the prophet and was on a death list for that opposition. Yet she was not killed, because she came from an important tribe. Moreover, when she later converted to Islam and the prophet asked her to swear not to commit adultery, she replied with dignity, "A free woman never commits adultery."5 It is the protection provided by the tribe that gave both Hind and Sukayna the power to break what many considered to be Islamic rules that women from minor tribes were obliged to obey.
Tribal affiliations also play a crucial role in high-level government positions. In the selection of cabinet ministers in the new government in Yemen, the Sada or Jsharf (i.e., descendants of the Hashimites and the prophet's clan in Quraish) won major positions. For instance, Haidar Abu Bakr Al-Attas, who represents the Sada in Hadramout, became Yemen's prime minster. Saleh bin Husainoon, also Sada, became the minster of petroleum and energy. Even Ali Salim al-Baidh, the leader of Yemen's Socialist party (YSP) claims to be a Hashimite, a descendant from the prophet's family. In addition, Deputy Prime Minister Mujahid Abu Shawarib is a member of the Rashid tribe and the brother-in-law of Sheikh Al-Ahamar, the head of the Islamic Isiah coalition. The rest of the cabinet ministers are a veritable list of who's who among the Yemeni tribes.
The victory of tribalism over Islamism, secularism and "modernism" in both Jordan and Yemen casts serious doubt on the ability of the Islamists to gain power in the Arab world, especially in the Gulf area, where tribal affiliation sometimes comes before citizenship.
PRIMACY OF TRIBAL SOLIDARITY
Power has always been in the hands of Arab tribes, even during the early "Islamic golden age'' that many of the new Islamists claim they want to go back to. Tribal negotiations took place immediately after Prophet Muhammed's death in 632. When the Arabs had to choose a successor, competition arose between the Qurashi tribes of Mecca, home to the prophet and his Hashimite clan, and the Arab tribes of Medina, who supported the prophet and were instrumental in establishing the first Islamic state in Madina. That was the first major political crisis that faced the nascent Muslim state, and it was solved by political negotiations between the contending tribes, who chose Abu Bakr as the head of the Muslim state. Abu Bakr was a compromise. None of those contending for power felt that he could become a dictator because he came from the minor tribe of Taim that on its own strength could not support a dynastic rule. Although there are many who would claim that ideology (Islam) was the dominant factor in deciding leadership in that era, historical facts suggest that the tribal and clan relations played a significant role as well. In fact Hamza, the prophet's uncle, joined Islam to fight for his nephew against the insults of Abu-Jahl, a man from the rival tribe of Bani Makhzoom.
With the coming of third caliph, Othman, the role of the tribe became more explicit when Othman appointed most of the major governors from his own clan, the Ummayyads. In spite of the appointees' lack of Islamic credentials, which made them vulnerable to criticism, the power of the Ummayyad clan was enough to challenge criticism based on Islam. Outraged by this tribal maneuver, a group of idealistic young Muslims led by Mohammed ibn Abu Bakr, the son of the first caliph, assassinated Othman on June 17, 656.
And for a short while the leadership of the Muslim community shifted from the Ummayyads to their traditional rivals, the Hashimites. A Hashimite, Ali, the prophet's cousin, became caliph, but his caliphate was challenged by the Ummayyad governor of Syria, Muawia. After a battle that initially ended in a draw, Muawia succeeded in winning some of Ali's supporters to his side. In 661 Ali was killed by one of his followers and Muawia was appointed caliph or ruler of the Muslim land. The Ummayyads governed the Muslim world for almost a century. Islam was used to legitimate the tribal rule of the Ummayyads to the point where their leaders apparently invented sayings of the prophet (Hadith) about the Ummayyad right to power.6
Emphasizing the rivalry between the Hashimites and the Ummayyads over who should rule the community of believers does not suggest that other tribes were merely oppressed. Rather, both the Ummayyads and the Hashimites won their power on the basis of their alliances with the rest of the Arabian tribes.
But the death of Ali did not end the Hashimite ambition to power. They used the Ummayyads' supposed deviation from the right path of Islam to establish the power of the Abbassids from 750 to 975. The Fatimeds, who represent a dissatisfied faction among the Hashimites, came next and ruled from 975 to 1171. Although all these tribes or clans used Islam to justify their position of power, none of them was an improvement over the other in terms of religious conduct, according to the consensus of Islamic historians.7
The power of the tribe was undermined only when non-Arabs such as the Mamluks, the Turks and, later, Western colonial powers like Britain and France disrupted the nature of Arab politics and introduced alien concepts and arrangements for governing society.
In spite of the external powers' disruption of Arab politics and societies, the tribe managed to circumvent or at least adapt to the new circumstances and preserve some form of control through working with the colonialists. This was the case of the Hashimite tribe in Hijaz (western Saudi Arabia) who collaborated with the British and were later given control over Jordan and Iraq. The Anza tribe (the Sabahs of Kuwait and the Sauds of Saudi Arabia) was given dominance in the Gulf.
This is not to suggest that Islam is a negligible component in the Islam-tribe equation. Nor is the tribe a static concept. Both Islam and the tribe are variables that differ from one historical period to the next and from one country to the next. Yet the historical facts point to Islam's secondary and supporting role to the tribe rather than to its primacy.
The modem history of the Arab states also yields enough evidence to support that secondary role of Islam. For example, the founder of the Saudi state, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, first allied himself with the Wahhabi warriors, but as soon as he subjugated the different tribes in the Arabian peninsula, he waged a war against his Islamic allies, the Ikhwan of Najd, and annihilated them in a brutal battle in Sibla in 1929. From the subjugated Islamists, he chose a group of ulema who were and still are more loyal to preserving the power of the Saud family than to spreading the faith.8
In both Algeria and Egypt, anti-colonial resistance movements were composed of the Muslim Brothers and the secular forces. However, as soon as independence was achieved, the Muslim Brothers (the Mujahideen) were pushed aside. In the cases of Egypt and Algeria, the tribe was not the main factor. In those cases the military replaced the tribe as the dominant organization in the society. But before one delves into the implications of the Jordanian and Yemeni cases for both Egypt, Algeria and the rest of the military-dominated states of the Arab world, one has to strike a few cautionary notes concerning the theory-based discussions of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, the nature of the post-colonial state, and the threat of the Islamic movements.
Concerning the question of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, it is essential to understand that both are ideas that emerged in different societies with different socio-economic arrangements and also in different historical periods. They are bound to be different. One needs only to remind analysts of the variabilities and different coloring that communism as an ideology has taken when it was adopted by the Chinese, the Europeans, the Africans and the Latin Americans. Those who think in monolithic terms tell us that communism as a political system has collapsed, but they never tell us which communism collapsed. What collapsed is the communism of "the white tribe"; colored communism in China (one-fifth of the world population) and in Cuba and North Korea is still there. Thus our analysis of what happened in the post-Cold-War world does not reflect an analysis of communism as much as it reflects our vision of a world that is inherently Western. What happens or does not happen elsewhere is not important even if the population that still believes in their version of communism is larger than those who abandoned it. The same argument can be advanced concerning those who search for compatibility between Islam and democracy. First, they insist that Islam and democracy are incompatible and ignore the empirical evidence provided by the Yemeni and Jordanian experiences. Second, they assume that there is one Islam regardless of the divisions between sects and the different colorings that Islam has taken as it moved from one society to the next and from one specific historical juncture to the next.
It also assumes that somehow everyone in the Middle East is going around engineering his/her life according to the teachings of Islam. The last assumption is of course absurd, for few people adhere to everything that any ideology teaches. For one thing, most texts, including the Quran, are filled with ambiguous and seemingly contradictory injunctions, and, for another, few people other than specialized scholars have the time to master the entire body of information, in this case, the Quran and the Hadith. To give a mundane example, most people only know how to play and stop a VCR; many of us do not know how to program it. We only use what we need. Middle Easterners also use from Islam what they need. Thus instead of discussing the compatibility between Islam and democracy, it is much more instructive to discuss whether or not the existing social formations in the Middle East, and the ideologies that they bring to the surface, allow for pluralism and power sharing.
Second, the concept of tribe is neither static nor uniform throughout the region. Although differences between tribes exist in the peripheral regions of modern Egypt and Algeria, one should also consider the factor of ethnicity for the Berbers in Algeria, the Nubians in Egypt and so on. Regionalism also plays an important part in shaping political alliances. For instance, the saeed (the south) in Egypt versus bahari (the north) not only affects the political attitudes of those in parliament, it also accounts for the major differences that exist between the northern Muslim Brothers' organization and the southern Islamic Group. Thus, instead of speculating about the compatibility of Islam and democracy, serious analysts should start thinking about the impact of these social cleavages (i.e., regional, ethnic and tribal differences) on Islam in a pluralistic context. That is, how these social differences will affect or be affected by Islam, if free elections are to be held in either Egypt or Algeria. The important question is what this will mean for the interpretation of the Islamic tradition under a government that guarantees freedom of expression.
ISLAM, DEMOCRACY AND THE POST-COLONIAL STATE
In spite of the differences between countries like Egypt and Algeria, there are some common features that could explain both the lslamists' challenge to state authority and the prospect for democratization. Both Egypt and Algeria are post-colonial states with centralized governments that have not yet penetrated the whole of the territories they claim. In fact, since they gained their independence during the Cold War, they have not felt the need to do so. Elites in the capitals, be it Cairo or Algiers, have insured their survival not on the basis of legitimacy in the eyes of their own people but by depending on external forces to help them establish a police state capable of suppressing dissent. Legitimacy has not been based on taxation and representation. Most Arab states have not felt the need to collect taxes either because they have oil resources (the Gulf States) or because they depend exclusively on a foreign patron (the former Soviet Union and later the United States, in the case of Egypt). In the case of Algeria, the state depended upon both the Soviet Union and oil.
Democratization is inextricably linked to the sources of funds for the state. The absence of money coming from abroad and the need to generate money locally through taxation are the only factors that pressure a police state into making concessions to its people. In the case of Egypt, this is not likely to happen at the present time, since Egypt still has a foreign patron that subsidizes both its military and its violent campaign against the opposition. Thus, the $2.7 billion annual U.S. subsidy to Egypt may be the basic obstacle to democratization, not the Islamic component of the Egyptian culture. Consequently, Algeria will probably be the first to make concessions to its opposition because France is not likely to have the resources to revive the badly battered Algerian economy, and of course its former patron, the Soviet Union, no longer exists.
It is curious that strides toward democratization have been taken in the Arab world only in the countries that have been punished by the United States (Yemen and Jordan) as a result of their support for Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War. Both Yemen and Jordan may serve as examples for what could happen throughout the region. Lack of outside financial support rather than a democratic conversion is the primary reason for King Hussein's changed attitude toward broader participation and power-sharing in Jordan. After the United States cut its subsidies to the Jordanian state during the Gulf War, Hussein permitted democratization to legitimate future taxation. The same can be said about President Salih of Yemen.
Before one addresses the potential for democratization in both Egypt and Algeria in the light of the current lslamist challenge, one has to come to grips with the legacy of the past of those two states. The problem of both Egypt and Algeria is not Islam, but the legacy of colonialism and socialism and the consequent disruption of the natural evolution of Arab societies by external forces. To consider Islam the main force disrupting Algerian and Egyptian societies is simplistic verging on naive. Those who insist on Islam as the main source of conflict cannot explain why these states are facing an Islamic challenge now and not ten years ago. After all, Islam has been the religion and culture of these countries for over a thousand years.
In this sense, Nasser's revolution in Egypt and the Algerian revolution were responses to capitalist colonial dominance that not only brutalized these societies but in some cases altered their modes of production. At least this happened in the major urban centers, if not necessarily in the hinterland. This organic relationship between colonial forces, either through resistance in the cases of Nasser and the Algerian FLN, or cooperation in the case of the local notables, led to the creation of Arab nation-states that are centralized and concentrated in the capital city only. The same can be said about Syria and Iraq. This is probably the main reason why the Iraqi state didn't collapse after the Gulf War in spite of its loss of practical sovereignty over the Kurdish north and the Shiite south. The reality of Iraq, as is the case in most post-colonial Arab states, is that the state is the capital. This is true not only of Baghdad, but Damascus, Algiers and Cairo. As long as its capital stays untouched, the regime will invariably survive. One-fourth of the Egyptian land, the Sinai peninsula, was occupied from 1967 till 1979 and the regime was strong; the same is true of the Golan in Syria.
The capital-centered Arab states and their governments are creations of the Cold War economy. While the tribes of the hinterland managed to be self-sufficient, the urban elite depended on their patrons, mainly the Soviet Union in the case of the radical Arab states, the United States in the case of the conservative regimes in the Gulf, Morocco and later Egypt.
Although the ideological conflict during the Cold War altered some of the Arab countries, especially when the Soviets supported the revolutionaries from minor tribes (i.e., Saddam Hussein in Iraq), even then the tribes managed to survive. Therefore we have seen revolutionary tribes like the Alawites of Syria headed by Hafiz al-Asad. However, the revolutionary era also brought people from relatively unknown families to power like the members of the FLN in Algeria and Nasser in Egypt, who rose through the ranks of the military. As the flow of cash was suspended due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, both the economic and political power of the capital cities came under attack from other social forces, mainly from the hinterland. The lack of traditional authority on the part of some of these leaders, especially those who do not possess Nasser's charisma, has made them vulnerable to the Islamist challenge. But the lslamist movement in both Algeria and Egypt has been hijacked by tribal elites in the same way that Sheikh AI-Ahmar of Yemen took control of the Islamic Isiah coalition.
The collapse of the Cold War economy led to the weakening of the capital cities' grip on power in many places beyond the Arab world. The best example of this is the collapse of Somalia, where a general from a minor tribe, Siad Barre, managed to rule with the support of both the Soviet Union and later the United States. As soon as Somalia lost its geostrategic importance (with the settlement of the war in Ethiopia), the capital city was left without any means of support. Urban elites turned into bandits fighting for dominance over agriculture and the resources of the periphery. After U.S. and U.N. forces went to Somalia, the famine in the periphery stopped due to the buffer created between the hungry unproductive compradors of the Cold War and the self-sufficient, albeit poor, people of the rural areas.
What is taking place in both Algeria and Egypt is the by-product of the same phenomenon, though of a lesser magnitude. Cairo cannot survive on its own, and what is keeping the Egyptian system from collapsing like Somalia is the amount of aid Egypt receives from the United States, the Gulf states and the European community. If the flow of aid stopped, we would likely see famine in Egypt. Algeria is protected by its oil resources; but a boycott of Algerian oil could produce a serious conflict similar to that in Somalia. Thus what we see in both Egypt and Algeria is a lesser degree of the Somali syndrome.
The best survival mechanism for the people in Algeria and Egypt is local revenue generated through taxation. But they will not accept taxation without representation. Instead of making the necessary painful decisions, leaders in Egypt argue that opening up the system will bring the "Islamic extremists" to power. Indeed some of the Islamists may gain seats in parliament, but their gains are not likely to exceed those of their fellow Islamists in Yemen, in Jordan or in Egypt's previous elections. Both the Yemeni and the Jordanian cases indicate that if political systems in the Arab world are freed, the tribes of the periphery will have the upper hand because their tribal, regional and, in many cases, linguistic and cultural ties will generate more votes than the organization of either the Islamists or the secular political parties.
Tribal leaders in both Jordan and Yemen had an edge over both secular parties and Islamist ones. First, unlike the secularists, who sometimes tactlessly ridicule the Islamists and their faulty programs in such a way as to appear to be ridiculing traditional values and Islam itself, the tribal candidates in both Yemen and Jordan appealed to both traditional tribal values and Islam to mobilize support. The tribes also have an advantage over the Islamists. Unlike the Islamists, who mocked the practices of traditionalists (the majority of the people) and their understanding of Islam by emphasizing a theoretical "pure" Islam free from jahilia (pre-Islamic tribal) practices, tribal leaders emphasized both traditional Islam and tribal ethos. Since traditional Islamic practices are closer to the real world than the ''pure'' Islam of the lslamists, the tribalists have a far broader appeal. Furthering the strength of tribal appeal, the tribal/traditional image of God and government are closely linked in the minds of many common people: in both cases, power is to be mediated either through local saints and sacrifice in the case of asking a favor from God or by bribing a local official to speed things up with the central government, analogous to offering contributions to congressional campaigns in the United States. Fortunately or not, the lslamists' image of a God who does not accept bribes or intermediaries may ultimately bring about the demise of the Islamists' power. But because of the existing grievances, namely the hegemony of the capital cities over the periphery and the lack of any significant strides toward democratization and inclusiveness, the lslamists garner popular support as the only group willing to take the risk associated with championing these issues.
REGIONALISM AND TRIBALISM: IMPLICATIONS FOR DEMOCRACY AND THE "ISLAMIC THREAT"
Neither in the Middle East nor anywhere else in the world can ideology be considered the sole motivation for political action. Even in the case of early Islam, it would be simplistic to attribute the spread of the faith to its egalitarian message alone. Other factors should not be discounted, such as the accompanying concepts of ghanima (booty), which earlier Muslim warriors collected from the invaded lands, and qabila (tribal solidarity), which provided the necessary men for Muslim armies. Throughout Islamic history very few regimes have survived without tribal support.
Currently, a modem tribe dominates the societies of Egypt and Algeria: the military. However, with the lack of support from outside forces and the mismanagement of the economies of these nations, this military tribe is becoming bankrupt and gradually demoralized. The only means for these military governments to survive beyond the dependency on outside aid is to become more inclusive and allow for greater participation, as King Hussein did in Jordan and Ali Abdullah Salih did in Yemen. Thus, if these systems are to be opened and fair elections allowed, most assemblies of Arab states would be filled by tribal leaders from the rural areas outside the capital city.
Furthermore, it is curious that a disproportionate number of almost all Islamic movements in the Arab world come from the periphery. For instance, almost all the leaders of the Egyptian Islamic group that assassinated Egypt's late president, Anwar Sadat, are southern Egyptians. Currently, the heaviest fighting between the Egyptian Islamists and the government takes place in southern cities like Assiut, Qena and Aswan. In Algeria also, while most members of the FLN, which dominated Algerian politics after 1958, are from the Sahil or coastal areas, the leadership of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) come from the periphery.9 FIS's second man, Ali Belhadj, is a native of Wadi al-Soof in southeastern Algeria.10 Hussien Ait Ahmed's Socialist Forces Party also represents the interest of the Berber tribes. Thus his party is both ethnic and regional. Even Rachid al-Ghanouchi, the leader of the Tunisian Islamic movement al-Nahda is a southerner. Consequently, one is tempted to say that more than Islam is at the heart of the social strife in North Africa. It may well be the response of the leaders of the periphery to the hegemony of the leaders of center. The leaders of the periphery could not have chosen a better time. The elite of the center are vulnerable as a result of the withdrawal of outside support from their strategic patrons after the Cold War.
Hence there is a need to reassess the so-called Islamic threat in the context of center-periphery relations in the post-colonial state. This is not to say that political Islam as a political ideology lacks the basic ingredients to mobilize people into action, create its movement and ultimately lead to the emergence of an Islamic regime. However, whether or not this occurs depends on the nature of the contest. Political Islam can become a form of nationalism if the enemy (real or imaginary) is outside the national boundaries. However, if the conflict is inside, a conflict over who governs a particular country, then this nationalism becomes more and more localized and gradually degenerates into its basic components, namely blood ties, regional loyalties, linguistic similarities and lowest common denominators. These local sentiments are what I loosely call tribal sentiments.
In both Egypt and Algeria, and ultimately in the rest of the Arab states, the conflict is local: a contest over who rules or who has the legitimacy to rule. Political Islam takes the form of nationalism only when the ruling elite attempts to deflect the danger of the Islamic challenge to their survival by appealing to national symbols and resorts to the language of Arab nationalism (when they talk about the occupied Golan Heights, for instance, or imperialism and Western sanctions against Iraq or Libya). These are the only issues on which Islamists can close ranks with the existing regimes. Of course, any regime change in the Arab world from military/tribal to Islamist could have implications for the outside world because of the simple linkage between domestic and international politics. But, so far, Western discussions of the "Islamic threat" have not matured into a consideration of the implications of these linkages in substantive terms. What we have are nothing but assertions-"Islamic regimes are bad: Look at Iran and Sudan"-without any serious study of the similarities and differences between the various Islamic regimes and movements and the complex circumstances that led to the rise of each.11 Except for the Islamists' anger at the major powers (France and the United States) for siding with oppressive regimes and at the elites for manipulating the Islamic movements by focusing on external enemies, the conflict remains a local one between a particular Islamist movement and the ruling elite, with power-sharing as an ultimate objective. Until a good case is made that there is an international Islamist objective that these various movements and regimes share, there is little reason to think that an Islamic regime would not play by the rules in a system in which states, not civilizational blocs, are the ultimate actors.12
Thus, instead of asking whether Islam and democracy are compatible, the question should be, are democracy and primordial "sentiments" like tribal allegiance compatible? To answer it we are not limited to the Middle Eastern experience. Take, for instance, the results from the recent mayoral race in New York City. If the shifting alliances among blacks, Italians and Jews and their voting behavior as blocs are indicators, then primordial sentiments of tribal allegiance often take precedence over ideology in America as well. The conservatism of Giuliani and the liberalism of Dinkins were apparently less significant than the ethnic alliances among the voters. This is no different from tribal politics in Amman or Sanaa and would seem to indicate that tribalism and democracy are quite compatible. In fact, pluralism and democracy in traditional societies may be enhanced by this social stratification. There are those who have argued that the caste system may be the reason India has succeeded in developing and maintaining stable democratic institutions .13 Culture and social structure (tribe and Islam) are not the only influences on democratization. Wealth, equity and external involvements are also important factors that require more scrutiny.
In conclusion, the results of the Jordanian and Yemeni elections as well as the history of tribe-Islam relations in the past lend support to the superior claim of the tribe over ideology, including Islam. This casts doubt on the Western concept of an "Islamic threat." Furthermore, the shift toward democratization on the part of the Jordanian king and the president of Yemen are driven more by a desire to preserve the existing power arrangements and the state than by a shift in their personal attitudes toward governance. This points to the role of external powers in promoting or hindering democracy in the area. The unconditional French support of the Algerian military and the U.S. support of the Mubarak regime in Egypt may be greater obstacles to democratization than the Islamic movements. Given that this outside support will not continue indefinitely, democracy in the Arab world is no longer merely an option, but a historical imperative.
1 The names of the people and the village have been altered.
2 The Christian Science Monitor, November 11, 1993.
3 The Christian Science Monitor, November 10, 1993.
4 For a good account on the Yemeni elections, see Renaud Detalle, "The Yemeni Elections Up Close," Middle East Report, vol. 23, no. 6, November-December, 1993, pp. 8-12.
5 For more details, see Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1991) pp. 189--195.
6 Mohammed Abid al-Jaberi, Arab Political Mind (Arabic) (Beirut, Lebanon: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-Arabia, 1990) pp. 26-261. For a more specific discussion on the role of the tribe in Arab-Islamic politics, see chapter two in the same book, pp. 79-98.
7 Ibid., pp. 329-362.
8 See John S. Habib, Ibn Saud's Warriors of Islam (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978).
9 For a good discussion on the Algerian state and the challenge of democracy, see Hugh Roberts, "The Algerian State and the Challenge of Democracy,'' Government and Opposition, Autumn 1992, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 433-52.
10 For a more systematic study of the social and regional background of the elite in the Maghreb, see Mohammed Abdel Baqi al-Hermassi, al-Mujtama Wa Dawla Ji al-Maghrib al-Arabi (Beirut, Lebanon: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihad al-Arabia, 1987), pp. 53-55.
11 For an example of the uncritical assessment of the Islamists movements in the Arab world, see Judith Miller, "The Challenge of Radical Islam," Foreign Affairs, Spring 1993, pp. 43-55.
12 The concept of civilizational blocs has been advanced by Samuel P. Huntington in a recent Foreign Affairs article, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, pp. 22-49.
13 See Lloyd I. and Susanne Hueber Rudolph, The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).
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