In 39 days, three Arab countries held critical elections, Tunisia (October 23), Morocco (November 25), and Egypt (November 28-9). Although the elections in these countries have different contexts and implications, the three events have several things in common. First, the elections were made possible directly or indirectly by the Arab Awakening of early 2011. Second, before the Awakening, Western powers had labeled these three countries as “moderate,” a euphemism for undemocratic regimes run by a westernized elite. Last, these elections brought to power Islamist parties and groups that the west has labeled “extremists.” So should western governments now freak out?
In the short run, maybe. In the long run, not at all. Here is why.
1. Extremists are more dangerous when they are outside the political system than when they are inside it.
Some radical extremists choose to stay outside the system because they don’t believe in it or perceive it as illegitimate, whether for political or religious reasons. So they stay outside the system and in some cases they undertake work to overthrow it by any means necessary. In contrast, there are other groups and movements that were kept outside the system against their wish.
Those groups are likely to adopt radical ways to make their voice heard or until they are invited in. The Islamist and nationalist groups that participated in the recent elections belong to the latter category. Members of these groups have been exiled, imprisoned, and demonized by the Arab regimes since their countries became independent. The Arab Awakening offered them a chance to be part of the political system and they are taking advantage of it. Will it change their extremist ways? Absolutely. Many cases from around the world support this view.
2. Almost all extremist leaders and groups tone down their rhetoric and actions once they are in power
As soon the preliminary results were announced, al-Nahda leader Rachid Ghannouch made a number of reconciliatory announcements telling western governments that his party will honor all previous commitments to foreign governments. He also told Tunisians who voted for his party that his government will not scale back personal freedoms.
To take another example, Hamas was a group shunned by western powers as a terrorist organization until it won the 2006 elections and took charge of Gaza. At that point, it completely stopped the bombings carried out by its members. The movement managed to maintain an unofficial truce with Israel, reducing the number of cross-border rocket attacks. Recently, its political leaders have announced that the movement will give “popular resistance” a chance, signaling shift in military strategy and an acceptance of a political settlement.
3. Even extremists must respect the rules of the game that brought them to power
The Islamist parties are coming to power through the ballot boxes, not bullets. They are taking over the reins after popular uprisings that ousted authoritarian, corrupt regimes. Their success and their rise to power testify to the fact that oppression does not last and that people eventually win over tyranny. Islamist leaders are aware that their ability to hold on to power depends on their ability to earn and maintain the trust of the voters. Moreover, it is unlikely that former political prisoners who were tortured and exiled could easily turn into torturers of political dissenters—their old selves.
4. The people will not tolerate new dictatorships
Despite their impressive electoral accomplishments, Islamist parties cannot take full credit for ending tyrannical rule. The three elections’ results show that voters trust them to lead but not control. In fact, in Tunisia and Morocco, Islamist parties cannot form a government on their own and must enter into alliances with other political parties to secure a governing majority. That political circumstance is a resounding rejection of tyranny, whether in the form of one individual ruling in the name of God or a political party ruling in the name of the voters. Consequently, the new Islamist leaders cannot use religion as a cover, or culture as an excuse to extend their rule beyond the mandate given them by the voters. God did not vote.
5. The new Middle East is not run by the “friends” of the West
In western discourse, extremism has been portrayed as an Arab or Islamic phenomenon. Some went as far as to suggest that Islam is not compatible with representative governance. Consequently, western powers were content with a foreign policy that supported “friendly” and “moderate” leaders who oppressed their peoples. Israel especially, showered Mubarak and other friendly rulers with praise, while poking fun at their societies as undemocratic and prone to extremism. Some Israeli leaders criticized the U.S. for not supporting Mubarak, on the basis that fair elections would bring extremists like the Muslim Brethren to power. This line of reasoning came from a governing coalition that is–by all accounts–the most conservative and extreme in the history of that country. True, all indications show that the new Arab world will be run by conservative Islamist and nationalist parties (albeit democratically elected). But how is that different from the current Israeli governing coalition that consists of the staunchly religious United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu and Jewish Home parties, and the super-conservative Likud party. In fact, the current ruling regime is so extreme that many lifelong Jewish activists have voiced their dissatisfaction with its radical agenda:
When, however, laws are passed that stifle free expression, seek to undermine the independence of the judiciary and, in the name of defending a Jewish state, seek to undermine the rights of Arabs and other minorities, then the very democratic character of the state is being eroded. [Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, Huffington Post, 11/30, 2011]
So, if western powers are not freaking out about a right wing government in Israel, why should they freak out about Islamist-run emerging democracies in the Arab world? In fact, elected governments in the Middle East might advance the cause of peace and stability—assuming the theory that democracies don’t go to war with each other hold true.
6. Western regimes overestimated the influence of the liberal elite and underestimated the popularity of Islamist and nationalist movements
Reacting to the results of the elections in Egypt, an Egypt expert told the Washington Post (on December 1) that “in the end, the liberal groups are not popular and not organized.” For years, western commentators argued that in fair and transparent elections, Islamists would not fare well.
Although that theory was debunked twice in Iraq under the watch of American troops when Sunni and Shi`i parties outlasted the well-funded secular ones led by Allawi and Chalebi, many continue to argue that the Islamists’ gains can be explained by the fact that the secular parties did not have enough time to prepare. Western politicians (from the left and right) have a curious expectation of the Islamic world. In their eyes, Muslims must all embrace liberal and secular ideas, to the exclusion of religious ideals.
Domestically, however, these Western liberals and conservatives are not alarmed by the rise of religious and conservative politicians. The “shellacking” the Democrats received in 2010 U.S. midterm elections when they lost the House to conservative Republicans can be easily explained away. But the persistence of conservatism in Islamic society alarms them.
The elections in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt ought to humble those who hold this double standard. They ought to admit that their attitude is partly to blame for the lack of popularity of liberal and secular groups in Islamic societies. They must have faith in the transformative power of choice that people exert after being faced with brute force that strips them of their dignity and self-respect. The Tunisian, Moroccan, and Egyptian voters are giving the Islamists and centrists a chance to restore their hope in a dignified future. If they work for that, we all ought to support it.