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Challenging Regimes, Koran in Hand

Rising trends of political Islam and popular participation force Arabs to grapple with issue of identity

ALGERIA, January 1992: Tanks roll onto the streets of Algiers, police fire tear gas at rioters, and the Army steps in to preempt a landslide victory at the polls by the largest Islamic party in the Arab world.

Kuwait, October 1992: The most privileged citizens of the region's wealthiest state line up peacefully in converted classrooms to cast their votes in elections, giving the lion's share of opposition seats in parliament to Islamist candidates.

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Jordan, November 1992: King Hussein bows to popular sentiment and pardons the country's most respected Islamic activist, parliamentarian Leith Shbeilat, and his co-defendants, who had been convicted on subversion charges widely seen as manufactured by the government.

Oman, February 1993: At the tip of the Arabian desert, Sultan Qaboos spreads his royal camp for another stop in his annual tour of the kingdom to hear his subjects' petitions. His absolute authority increasingly under challenge, he is seeking to transform feudal loyalty into genuine popular support.

Across the length and breadth of the Arab world, peoples' demands for a louder say in the affairs of state are pushing their way to the top of the political agenda. The word dimuqratiyya (democracy) is increasingly on people's lips, and autocratic rulers are beginning to respond.

Meanwhile, another movement of equal import is contending successfully for the hearts and minds of millions of Arabs: the resurgence of Islam, both as a religion to fulfill spiritual needs, and as an ideology to fill a political void. For since its inception, Islam has embodied a total approach to life, with its strictures applying equally to private and public concerns.

"Islam doesn't just stop at the door of the mosque," says a Western diplomat with long experience in the region. "Islam runs right through life, and you can't divide it from politics."

After scores of interviews with Arab officials, Islamic thinkers, and political activists, it seems clear that Islamic movements hold an advantage in the emerging competition for power because Islam resonates so deeply in most of the region's 17 countries. The question is not whether Islamic politics will transform the Arab world, but how they will do so.

"The real challenge is to mesh Western liberal democracy with the authentic bases for an Arab identity," says Rami Khoury, a Jordanian political analyst. "It is the single most important thing that is happening in the region."

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Abdullah Abdel Halek, a university professor in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), sees it from a slightly different angle: "This is a time for questions. People here are tormented between their Islamic identity and the need to catch up with the modern world."

Not a single Arab country is yet ruled by a government that could be called democratic in the Western sense. But both internal and external forces are exerting pressures to change this picture.

Some Arab citizens look outside the region to political liberalization in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America, and wonder why the Middle East should be excluded from this trend. Others look no farther than their doorsteps, and blame their rulers for the poverty, joblessness, and ill health they so often face. And some groups seeking change have gotten a significant boost from outside.

In Kuwait, for example, last October's elections were the political price the emir was obliged to pay to the United States-led coalition that liberated his country from Iraq.

King Fahd's tentative steps toward a consultative council in Saudi Arabia are also widely seen as a response to discreet pressure from Washington.

In Jordan, on the other hand, where the Arab world's first fully free elections for decades are due next November, King Hussein launched his democratization drive only after riots broke out among his discontented citizenry in April 1989. The same was true of Algeria, where an explosion of economic grievances in October 1988 ended nearly 30 years of one-party rule by the National Liberation Front (FLN), spurring local elections in August 1991 and national elections that December.

Steps taken by Arab rulers toward broadening the political systems in their countries have varied enormously in scope and pace. A few examples:

* In Kuwait, the emir has restored a parliament with the right to debate and recommend legislation, and to summon ministers. But only first-class male citizens over 21 were eligible to vote in the 1992 elections.

* In Saudi Arabia, King Fahd revived a long standing pledge after the Gulf war to establish a majlis al-shura (consultative council). Its members would be nominated, with only advisory status, and none beside its president have yet been named.

* In Jordan, a parliament with legislative powers is already in place, although political parties were banned at the time of its election in 1990 that gave moderate Islamists the largest single bloc of seats.

* In Egypt, the ruling National Democratic Party has maintained its decades-long grip on power through a series of polls the opposition has always claimed were rigged. Islamists, banned by the Constitution from forming a party based on religion, are expected to contest the next elections under the Labor Party's umbrella.

* In Sudan, a government strongly influenced by Islamist activists, which gained power in a 1989 military coup, is building a system for what it calls "direct democracy" (without political parties), through local, regional, and eventually, national elections.

* In Algeria, after the discrediting of the FLN, hastily arranged polls in December 1991 gave a first round victory to the Islamist National Salvation Front (FIS), prompting the cancellation of the electoral process just before the second round.

All these moves toward broader popular participation in government, while arising from different circumstances, have had one result in common: Parties, groups, or movements basing their appeal on Islam have been the quickest and ablest to fill the newly opened political space.

Ishak al-Farhan, leader of Jordan's Islamic Action Front, explains why: "When [Islamist activists] preach through mosques, or educational and social institutions, they are only responding to the pulse of the people."

Islam, as Saudi Arabian publisher Mohammed Salahuddin points out, is the glue that holds Arab society together. "It is the peoples' faith. It is not an alien thing that needs bringing to them, it shapes their whole life and mentality."

That gives Islamist activists a natural advantage. At the same time, there are historical reasons why they are now encountering little competition in their battle for voters' hearts and minds.

The beacon of Communism has been extinguished, and the ideological wave of secular Arab nationalism with a strong socialist tinge that swept the region 40 years ago has washed up on a beach of failure. Secular regimes have not found answers to deep economic problems, nor have they resolved the long-festering Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel is as powerful as ever, and Arab unity is an even more distant dream.

"Islam is all that remains as a moral reference for the people," says a Western diplomat based in Amman, Jordan.

Ibrahim Nugud, a former Communist leader in Sudan now under house arrest in Khartoum, says: "The fact that the fundamentalists are dominant is not because they use terrorism. It's because all the other opposition forces are decimated."

Arab governments, who feared leftist parties in the post-colonial period, often used Islamic groups to counter them in order to buttress their own power.

"In the Cold War atmosphere, the fundamentalist movement was used in a ferocious way as one of the most influential weapons against communism," and other leftist forces, Mr. Nugud complains.

King Hussein of Jordan, for example, gave protection to the Muslim Brotherhood at the same time he dissolved all opposition political parties. The Jordanian government, argues opposition figure Labib Kamhawi, "has systematically worked to discredit all leftist ideologies. The only ideology it did not attack, because it could not, was Islam. So the only option for people was to join the religious forces."

Thus many regimes that now feel threatened by Islamists were themselves the first to legitimize Islam as a political force. As Nugud bitterly recalls, "To organize a communist group, we had to find safehouses. To organize an Islamist political group, you can meet openly five times a day, in the mosque."

That organizational strength, developed over decades when secular opposition parties were for the most part banned, has proved its value. Islamists "represent the core of an active movement working systematically and in a dedicated way, while all the other forces are divided and disorganized," says Salama Ahmed Salama, editor of Egypt's semi-official Al Ahram daily.

In Jordan, the 26 Islamist candidates won enough votes in the last election to form the largest bloc in parliament. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has come to dominate most professional associations.

Such organization has, of course, been fed by plentiful funds. Wealthy religious individuals in the Gulf, some with close ties to their governments, have long financed such groups as the FIS in Algeria, Hamas in the Israeli-occupied territories, and the radical Gamaa Islamiya and Islamic Jihad in Egypt. Western intelligence agencies charge that the Iranian government also has been generous.

The money has been used shrewdly. The Islamists have invested infinitely more in social projects offering the poor inexpensive health care, subsidized food, or low cost housing than they have in guns and ammunition, and the political impact has been great.

The Islamists also have effectively espoused the most popular causes. In Saudi Arabia, conservative religious scholars have attacked government corruption and nepotism more forcefully than any secular liberal opposition group. In Egypt, "the Islamists influence sectors of society that are deprived and feel insecure, and they move amongst them much more effectively than do secular groups to convince them that they can solve their problems," Mr. Salama says.

In Algeria, the FIS attracted many voters through its outright rejection of the FLN-dominated past, rather than through its Islamic platform alone. "[People] were scandalized by the inequalities, by injustice, and the FIS asked the right questions," argues Slimane Chikh, an Algerian presidential adviser.

Encouraged by all these advantages, and eager to press them to the full, Islamists across the Arab world have grown triumphalist. As Hassan al-Turabi - the eminence grise behind the Sudanese government, and one of today's foremost Islamist political thinkers - puts it, "If you don't allow Islam in through the front door, it will come in through the window."

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