Jordan Vote Reflects Islamic Parties' Slide

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Nov. 26 -- Voters rebuked Islamic politicians in parliamentary elections in Jordan last week, following poor showings by Islamic-oriented political blocs in Egypt and Morocco over the past six months.

Islamic political movements are holding their ground in some other parts of the Middle East, but official manipulation of elections in Jordan and elsewhere is driving down voter turnout and curbing support for Islamic political blocs and political opposition groups overall, according to analysts, politicians and voters. In some cases, the Islamic groups have been hurt by internal dissension and political miscalculations.

Arab governments have felt freer to restrict the Islamic political movements since the Bush administration eased off pressure for free elections in the Arab world. The U.S. shift came as Islamic movements made strong showings in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories in 2005 and 2006.

"Arab governments feel they have more leeway to do what they want to do," said Michele Dunne, an expert in Arab affairs at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In part owing to U.S. preoccupation with troubles in Iraq and elsewhere, Arab governments perceive that "no one from outside is going to pay this much attention," Dunne said.

Some leading U.S. presidential candidates say the next administration should continue viewing democracy efforts in the Middle East with caution.

Any U.S. project to promote democratization in the Arab world should come only in "digestible steps," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said recently. Republican presidential candidate and former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has stressed security over elections, saying, "Democracy can't flourish unless people are safe."

Egypt has been the most aggressive in blocking the Islamic movements, after members of the Muslim Brotherhood running as independents won roughly one-fifth of the seats in the parliament's lower house in 2005.

During parliamentary elections this summer, riot police sealed off polling places in some areas of support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a referendum championed by the government, Egyptian voters this spring approved constitutional amendments that barred religious-oriented candidacies and retained provisions making it impossible for any current, significant opposition bloc to contest the presidency.

"There is a temporary success in cracking down on Islamic movements in the region," said Mohammed Habib, the first deputy chairman of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. "But in the long run, the Islamic movement is gaining popular support . . . and I believe the oppressive regimes will fail in their crackdown in the long run."

Jordan's Islamic Action Front last Tuesday suffered one of its worst election defeats since Jordan's monarchy restored parliament in 1989. The Islamic party won only six of the 22 parliamentary seats it had contested.


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