The Arab Spring: Voting Islamism

Three crucial questions about Islamism must be faced in order to build a framework explaining the Arab Spring.

Frankfurt Book Fair 2011
Election results in Tunisia and Egypt suggest that moderate Islamists may gain power [EPA]

Exeter, United Kingdom – Twenty years is a footnote in the big scheme of history. In the early 1990s, new prophets were being placed on a pedestal to reshape the region. The fad “New Middle East” was born. Many scholars fell under the spell of Shimon Peres, one of the earliest prophets of the “New Middle East”. From Morocco (where Peres first outlined his vision) to the UAE, statesmen, journalists and policy formulators readjusted rhetoric to that vogue.

George W Bush and Condoleezza Rice, among others, tried after the sacking of Baghdad to resuscitate some life into the term, which was tattered by the disjunction of rhetoric and practice. Peres authored (with Arye Naor) the term into a book in 1993. Its prose was nicely laced with political correctness and its jargon: peace, democratisation and economic development for all.

That “New Middle East” cloned the old Middle East, remaining bereft of two vital elements: statehood for the Palestinians, and an Arab role commensurate with their size and importance as a power sub-system unified by religious and linguistic commonality, bonds of history, geographic propinquity, and unfulfilled aspirations for development and economic integration.

The “Arab Spring” – even if its detractors will keep dreaming of it being supervened into an “Arab Winter” – is the first time since Nasser that has reclaimed unity of purpose and direction in a single term, a term that is the Arabs’ own in form and substance.

 ‘Islamist politicians’ rise in Tunisia

The Arab Spring and Islamism

Nothing like the “Arab Spring” spells danger for the superimposition of outside ideas on the Arab peoples. However, this “Arab Spring” is today in need of free inquiry and critical input to aid its fruition into a sustainable democratic becoming. Some of this input must be addressed to the Islamists who are looming as the major driving force of the current reshaping of the Arab region.

Their endorsement seems to be universal across the geography of the “Arab Spring”. Note how some of the Islamist candidates in Egypt secured seats through formidable popular endorsement. Ramadan Omar, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party candidate in the 9th district, contesting the single seat in the category of seats allocated to workers, received nearly 429,000 votes. That is more than the total votes of entire parties in Tunisia. 

This perhaps explains why some liberal parties or figures wanted the elections to be cancelled; and a few in Egypt, including businessmen affiliated with Mubarak, are still working to sabotage the polls. They can think of the spectre of a strong Islamist showing in the elections happening at their expense, and not helping reap the dividends of the Arab Spring through institution-building for the whole of Egypt.

That said, it has become scarcely possible to conceive of a reshaped Middle East without being brought up against a basic fact: the rise and continuing rise of Islamist forces. Three questions must be faced.

By attempting to answer them, the objective is to produce a framework into which ways of thinking about the democratic potentiality of the Arab Spring can be fitted. 

Question 1: Is Islam the solution?

Islamists proceed on the assumption that there are enough resources for developing a normative blueprint for developing a political order in line with the divine design revealed to the Prophet Mohamed and supplemented by the corpus of Prophetic Tradition.     

To seek a good approximation of the divine design through the construction of a democratic socio-moral order for polity, society, economy, culture and epistemology, the Islamists need to avoid getting embroiled in the non-essentials of both Islam and the current period of transition.

For instance, if the aim is a community of citizens living in a republic of laws, then excluding compatriots holding two nationalities is out of line. Mubarak, Ben Ali, Assad, and the late Gaddafi all had a single nationality; but that did not make them upright citizens in the service of their nations.

The non-essentials of sect, youth, religion and gender should not impinge on equal rights to citizenship. The only factor should be merit and record of service. In this sense, collective punishment of all members of formerly ruling parties may not suit the moment of making freedom and fairness the name of the game.

Islamists can lead the way in stamping out corruption, injustice, and exclusion, but to do this they need to partner with the rest of society. As someone who, over 16 years, interviewed dozens of Egypt’s Brotherhood leaders and activists – from the time of Mustafa Machhour up to present – and Jordanian, Sudanese, Tunisian, Hamas and Hezbollah Islamists, the Arab Spring has given Islamists an opportunity to demonstrate how “Islam can be beautiful” in practice.

This is not an easy challenge to measure up to, when not knowing what to achieve immediately or gradually, and what not to desperately – and perhaps unnecessarily – cling to, when the setting and the environment right now are prohibitive.

For instance, the likes of newly elected Ennahdha members Sadek Shorou or Habib Ellouz voice commitment to Islamic law as they enter the Constituent Assembly. Is Tunisia ready for Islamic law now? Thousands of Islamists, from Palestine to Morocco, share the same vision of a socio-moral order governed by shariah.

The key idea is to critically think about whether Islam is the solution now or in the future, and whether Islam is a solution for all matters or some matters. Islamists may find that in politics they may have to recalibrate rhetoric until the rethought component regarding “Islam is the solution” is subjected to the tests and rigours of the new reality as power-holders.  

Question 2: Is democratisation the solution?

Islamists seem not to be driven by political domination in this stage of the Arab Spring. Even with 40 per cent of the vote, they end up being holders of parliamentary majority. This has been the case in Egypt (after the first round of the multi-stage elections) and Tunisia after the October elections.

They do not have the political capital and experience, nor does the timing permit for such a democratic preference. The current phase demands partnership, coalition-building, capacity-building and modesty. This applies to Tunisia’s Ennahdha as well to Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party. In Tunisia, Ennahda obtaining a few more than one million votes – in a country where nearly three million did not register, and of the four million that did register, many fewer voted – does not constitute a majority. A reality-check is important to relativise electoral results and statistics.

The most important question, in my view, in summing up the challenge facing Islamists in power regards the following dilemma.

Pragmatically, Islamists have postponed the project of the Islamic state – and some even the implementation of Islamic law – until such a time when there is a properly functioning Muslim society. Brilliant; I concur! The reasoning behind this is that the perfect Islamic society is nowhere to be yet found in the geography of the global Islamic community. Just as illustrated by the standard example mentioned everywhere of Omar ibn Al-Khattab, who suspended alms-giving during the drought years of his caliphate.

Now, as nearly or quasi power-holders, Islamists should apply this to democratic transition. Democratic majoritarianism must equally be postponed until there is a properly functioning democratic public and society. Period.

Question 3: Is coalition-building the solution?

 Talk to Al Jazeera – Mohamed Saad Katatni:
‘Not a religious party’

The current democratic transition period is marked by coalition-building politics, mostly between Islamists and secularists and liberals.

In Tunisia, the Ennahdha Party was not keen on the idea of Abdelfattah Morou forming his own political party, making Islamism rigidly single-tracked. Unlike Tunisia, in Egypt, Islamism is diverse: Salafist and Sufi parties and the Wasat Party all share degrees of religious affinity.

In Tunisia, Ennahdha deftly knew how to engage in power-sharing, offering the presidency of the republic to Moncef Merzouki (Congress for the Republic) and that of the Constituent Assembly to Mustafa bin Jaafar (Ettakattol). It is still too early to tell how the Muslim Brotherhood will act, as the single agenda of the soon-to-be newly elected parliament in helping draft a constitution from January.

There are two fundamental issues here: firstly, there are already problems on the coalition-building model in Tunisia. Ennahdha wants a quasi-nominal presidency with much watered-down executive powers. Merzouki disagreed and this has thus far delayed the forming of the new government. He has, in the past week, acquired executive clout to go with the office, after Ennahdha relented. Now the final say rests with the Constituent Assembly to vote on his sole candidature.

In any case, the terms of coalition-building must be stated from the outset or the process risks producing political paralysis, not vigour in political praxis.

Coalition-building with liberals or other secular forces, including leftist forces, set Islamist-led transitions on less-ideologically charged democratisation as they have to take on board liberal or secularist policy preferences. This is a plus for transition. Note how Ennahdha President Rachid Ghannouchi no longer minds “bikinis” and his first statement after the elections was to allay the fears of investors, endorsing the “free market”.

Secondly – and this is the drawback – by choosing to co-opt formidable forces into coalition, victorious Islamists more or less pre-empt the function of opposition. At least, this is the case in Tunisia. If the two parties with the most potential build themselves into the democratic rivals of Ennahdha and then end up joining the Islamists as governing partners, the Constituent Assembly will not be a place of vibrant opposition, deliberation, contests and counter-contests.

The Islamist turn?

Socialists, secularists and colonials have had their go at rebranding the Middle East. It is too early yet to speak of an “Islamist turn”, even if all indications from initial electoral contests from Morocco to Egypt, and including Turkey, strongly hint the Arab Spring, in its first version, is marked by unprecedented openings for Islamist forces and socio-moral projects in polity and economy.

Some Salafis in Egypt used the electoral populist slogan that they “do not bite”. It may be the case. What is challenging for all politicians riding the Arab Spring into power, including Islamists, is that the populace will need more than political barking. They will need tangible change for the better.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.