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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.

Tribal candidates and parties allied to Jordan's King Abdullah II won the majority of the 110 seats. Jordan's electoral system gives disproportionate strength to rural areas, where support for Islamic and secular opposition parties is weakest.

The Islamic party alleged vote fraud, which the government denied.

"How do you want people to participate in public life . . . when you do all kinds of violations? Many will feel hopeless, feel this is a joke talking about democracy and elections," said Sabri Samirah, a spokesman for the Islamic Action Front. He spoke late last week, after bitter supporters of the party trudged out in the rainstorms that followed election day to tear down the movement's soggy banners, bearing the Brotherhood slogan, "Islam is the solution."

Morocco recently redrew its electoral districts, with the effect of diluting votes for the country's Islamic party. The party had been expected to win parliamentary elections this fall but failed to significantly improve its strength in parliament. Secular parties prevailed partly because perceived popular support for the Islamic party led the secularists to redouble their own campaigning, analysts said.

Islamic parties in some countries have lost appeal among voters who see them as too hard-line religiously or as flawed politically as any other office seekers.

Um Muhanned al-Atoum, a 44-year-old voter in Jordan's capital, long had backed the Islamic party, she said. She changed allegiance in last week's elections, disgusted that two Brotherhood lawmakers had attended the 2006 funeral of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"It hurt me when I heard that," Atoum said.

Islamic political leaders, as well as some analysts in the West, warn that Islamic-oriented voters may see violence as the only means of change if Arab governments block representative democracy.

"The government is sending the signal that we do not accept Islamists," whether "moderates or extremists," Samirah said. Turnouts have fallen in countries where authoritarian governments have been reluctant to let elections effect change.

Egypt officially put turnout in June elections for the upper house of parliament at 30 percent. An Egyptian election-monitoring group, Shayfeen.com, estimated actual turnout as low as 3 percent.

Only 37 percent of voters in Morocco cast ballots in September's parliamentary elections, the lowest turnout in the country's history.

And in Jordan, the government held polling places open for two extra hours last week to achieve the 51 percent minimum turnout required for a legal election.

Special correspondents Yasmin Mousa in Amman and Nora Younis in Cairo contributed to this report.

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