October 26, 2011
“Rise of the Islamists” Overblown
On Sunday roughly four million Tunisians celebrated their first adult step towards representative democracy. At least that many voters had registered prior to the constituent assembly election, according to commission chief Mohamed Kamez Jendoubi, and 90% turned out to support their party. “Many unregistered voters - mostly youth and women” - also registered late Sunday night. Having participated in a vote deemed “well-organized” by Former Mauritius President Cassam Uteem, the co-chairman of a Carter Center’s observer team, Tunisians rejoiced in the prospect of an unwritten future.
"I have observed 59 elections in the last 15 years, many of them in old democracies... and never have I seen a country able to realize such an election in a fair, free and dignified way," said Andreas Gross, a Swiss parliamentarian and head of the observer delegation for the Council of Europe. "I was elected in Switzerland on the same day in elections that were not much better than here."
Another observer mission from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) predicted that women could win 30% of the 217 contested seats.
Some Tunisians aren’t so enthusiastic, but they appear to be grossly outnumbered by the external detractors fearing an Islamist takeover. Predicted at 20-30%, Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party (Arabic for renaissance) is expected to walk away from over 40% of the assembly. This Spiegal Online report is typical of the West’s counter-revolution: “Tunisians disappointed Western observers this week by giving Islamists a big majority in the country's historic first election.”
The results of Tunisia’s election admittedly hit the West with greater impact than its individual force. Across the border, Libya’s Transitional Federal Government (NTC) had just declared the country’s liberation after a nine-month revolt against Muammar Gaddafi. Speaking at the Benghazi rally on Sunday, NTC leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil spooked a variety of wary observers by announcing, "As a Muslim country, we have adopted the Islamic Sharia as the main source of law. Accordingly, any law that contradicts Islamic principles with the Islamic Sharia is ineffective legally."
Jalil would clarify that Libyans are moderate Muslims, but his comments fanned a Western fire than spreads rapidly.
Nahda’s success at the ballot box also sparked renewed concerns inside and outside of Egypt, where many are expecting big electoral gains from the Muslim Brotherhood. A chaotic campaign season is in full effect after the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) amended the elections law to favor a list-based system, as demanded by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the liberal Wafd Party. Secular Egyptians and opponents of the Brotherhood accuse the SCAF of exploiting the group, using it as a wedge against newer parties. Western states generally kept their distance from the Brotherhood during the first phase of Egypt’s uprising (although the U.S. remains in close contact with the SCAF).
Yemenis have been particularly victimized by prejudices of “Islamization.” Mislead to believe that the Obama administration is keeping “Islamists” from seizing power, not enough Americans realize that the White House is negotiating with the only “Islamist” bloc in Yemen. The majority of Yemen’s youth and popular protesters seek a civil state based on Islamist principles. However the White House has opted to negotiate with Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime and the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an umbrella that includes the “Islamist” Islah party and Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. These groups aren’t necessarily urging an Islamist caliphate, but their traditional thinking and social ties have sidetracked Yemen’s democratic uprising.
For all of their faults Islamic groups shoulder an integral part of the Arab revolutions; Bahrain’s moderate Al Wefaq is merely one example. Tunisia’s election added a much-needed positive development to what is perceived as a stalled revolution. While Nahda garnered an estimated 90 seats out of 217, three times the seats as the second place Congress for the Republic (CRP), the group is already moving to establish a governing coalition with secular parties. Nahda, CPR and Ettakatol maintained friendly relations prior to the election and form a bulwark against the remnants of Ben Ali (Populist Petition), offering a complete package to Tunisians.
"Tunisians want centrist politics," says CPR leader Moncef Marzouki, a vocal Tunisian activist during Ben Ali’s regime. "They want an Arab-Muslim identity (Ennahda) and also democracy and human rights represented by the two parties CPR and Ettakatol."
Naturally Nahda has its share of doubters. What appears to be a small minority of Tunisians distrust the group, claiming the world is hearing another message from Nahda’s street message of Sharia law. Conversely, hardline elements accuse Nahda leader Rashid al-Ghannushi of being too liberal. The truth falls somewhere in between, but closer to al-Ghannushi’s secular label. Nahda rose out of the turbulent 1980’s and participated in a number of attacks on Tunisian government targets, before al-Ghannushi’s exile modernized his political thinking. Returning after Ben Ali’s fall, al-Ghannushi wasted no time backing Tunisia’s popular revolutionaries and revitalizing his party, which immediately garnered predictions of an election sweep.
Rashid al-Ghannushi could be talking out of two mouths, but his promise to maintain secular Islam is now locked into voters minds. Changing platforms will come with a price, as the interim government’s life-span could be severed by unhappy voters. This outcome, however, appears unlikely. al-Ghannushi has spoken and acted in sincere cooperation with the revolution: “We have long advocated democracy within the mainstream trend of political Islam, which we feel is the best system that protects against injustice and authoritarianism.”
His daughter, Soumaya, similarly promises, "I'm a Tunisian woman. I'd be the first concerned if there was a change. I'm a working woman, I'm active in civil society. I personally don't see any contradiction between Islam and... women's rights."
Ultimately Nadha’s coalition is the strongest network available to lead Tunisia’s transition, a positive influence capable of solidifying the fledgling government and plugging into the masses. Politically active Tunisians vow to stay vigilant through social networks, while Nadha campaign manager Abdelhamid Jlazzi said consultations will include all "political parties in the assembly and outside it, and civil society groups and unions.” al-Ghannushi himself provides leadership and strength in dealing with the international community, and rejected the job of interim prime minister by appointing his popular secretary-general, Hamadi Jebali. al-Ghannushi mentioned that he would like to see a younger candidate, but Jebali offers a steady hand through constitutional revision.
The 63-year old co-founder of the Islamic Tendency Movement, Nahda’s predecessor, impressed U.S. officials after he was sent to Washington to ease concerns of an Islamist takeover. Jebali told France’s Le Monde ahead of Sunday’s election, “if we win the elections, Tunisia will not become an Islamic country, it will be a democratic country.”
Future polls across the region may not unfold with the same euphoria as Tunisia’s. As hundreds of media reports warn, states such as Egypt, Yemen and Libya could break a different way from Tunisia’s “secular” society. Some Islamist parties may dominate the less organized competition, and stricter rules may be enforced in certain areas. Over time these newer parties may reverse the trend, given that organization can be developed and secular appeal is rising. Whether “Islamist” or secular parties assume an electoral majority, Islam is needed to guide a region of revolutionaries. It cannot be picked apart or shut out of the Middle East’s democratic upheaval - to deny Islam is to deny identity.
“Political Islam is a necessary gateway for democratic change in the Arab world,” Khattar Abou Diab, a professor of international relations at L’Universite Paris-Sud, told the AFP. “This is the most powerful political force in the Arab world today.”
Penning up this pressure would yield destabilizing results; although they come with downside, their suppression would generate far more damage than their participation. Islamist parties tend to know what they’re doing politically, injecting much-needed experience into the brand-new experience of open revolution. Few uprisings can be stopped when Islamic parties synchronize with the youth and civil movements.
At the least, Western fears shouldn’t exceed threatened dictators warning of an Islamist takeover.