Rising Arab Islamist parties woo the private sector

November 23, 2011

(A Tunisian artisan makes tributes to the "Arab Spring" revolution by etching flags on bronze plates in the medina, the old city of Tunis, June 14, 2011. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)

Hassan Malek, one of the top financiers and business advisors of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, describes his movement’s economic policy agenda: free trade, more manufacturing investment, and a crackdown on the corruption that has plagued business.

Islamic banking would be offered alongside conventional banking, as it is in Malaysia. The movement would advise citizens on lifestyle issues such as alcohol consumption and Islamic attire, but not impose rules.

“We want to attract as much foreign investment as possible…and this needs a big role for the private sector,” Malek, a businessman with interests in textiles and furniture, told Reuters. He was jailed by Hosni Mubarak’s government in 2006 and released after the former president resigned.

In most of North Africa, political change triggered by the Arab Spring uprisings is set to give Islamist parties major influence on economic policy for the first time, after decades in which dictatorial governments kept economics and religion apart.

The Islamist Ennahda party will dominate Tunisia’s coalition government after last month’s elections. Islamist groups are expected to do well in Morocco’s parliamentary polls this Friday, and in a series of Egyptian elections starting late this month. Libyan elections are due next June and the country’s interim leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, has already urged the country to “purify” its financial laws along Islamic lines.

Even in the Gulf, where the Arab Spring has not ousted governments, there are some signs of greater Islamic influence on policy. Oman announced in May that it would introduce Islamic banking after resisting this for years; in February, Qatar asked conventional banks to close down their Islamic operations to prevent any overlap of business with full-fledged Islamic banks.

Some local and foreign businessmen around the Middle East are concerned, even alarmed. They fear Islamist parties could disrupt financial markets and trade with religiously inspired regulations, scare away foreign investors, or damage economies with their inexperience in governing.

But so far, the signs are that the region’s Islamist parties are aware of the dangers and determined to avoid them. Knowing they need economic growth to cut unemployment and pay for social spending, they are working to reassure the private sector — and in many cases espousing policies that are as pro-market as those of their secular rivals.

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