The votes are in, and Islamist parties are ascendant throughout the Arab world. But can they rule?
The great experiment has begun. In recent days, Arab publics have gone to the polls in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, and to no one’s surprise, Islamist parties have come out on top in each case. Does this mean that Islamists have "hijacked" the revolution? Or that the Arab Spring will become, as Newt Gingrich put it in the Republicans’ foreign-policy debate, an "anti-Christian spring"? The one-word answer is "no." The three-word answer is "I hope not."
Tunisia’s al-Nahda party, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party, and Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) are not secular, but they are democratic — or at the very least, they have earned the right to have their democratic bona fides tested in the real world of political practice. They won pluralities because they were the best-organized parties in each country, but also because in the years before the populist upheaval they had come to be seen as forces for social justice in the face of autocratic rule.
They’ve earned their place; but what now? The most pressing question is not about their intentions, pious or otherwise, but about whether they will be permitted to rule at all. In Tunisia, where there is no entrenched rival force, the answer is almost certainly yes. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI promulgated a new constitution to give some authority to the feeble parliament, but he has kept virtually all real power for himself. Last week’s election aroused nothing like the enthusiasm of Tunisia’s or Egypt’s, with turnout a relatively modest 45 percent and large numbers of voters turning in intentionally spoiled ballots. In Egypt, of course, the interim military government, known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has said that it plans to rule until a president is elected, apparently in mid-2012; but Egyptians are increasingly worried that the SCAF will not withdraw even then.
Still, elections have a way of changing the landscape. Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD by its French initials), through which the country’s Islamists are organized, has already gently pushed back against the palace by asserting that if the king did not choose the party’s leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, as prime minister, they would reserve the right to review, and reject, his choice. (The king chose Benkirane.) Ahmed Benchemsi, a Moroccan journalist now at Stanford University and very much a secularist, says, "No other party leader would ever have dared say such a thing." For the first time, he says, "the balance of power is being challenged." The Brotherhood in Egypt has challenged the SCAF by calling for a "cabinet of national salvation," which the group would lead. That won’t happen; but the gauntlet has, ever so carefully, been thrown down.
For this reason, some of the secular figures who led the revolution in Tahrir Square have reacted calmly to the Brotherhood’s showing. On a recent talk show, Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive who was a pivotal figure in this year’s revolution, was quoted as saying, "It makes no difference to me whether Egypt is a civil or religious state so long as it is correctly run politically and economically." Many others, of course, fear that a Brotherhood-dominated parliament will lead Egypt deeper into obscurantism.
The big decision for the Brotherhood will be who to align with. The real surprise of the ballot so far is that the hard-liner Salafis have taken about a quarter of the vote, far outpacing both the traditional liberals who have long operated in the shadows of the military state and the more radical forces associated with Tahrir Square. The Brotherhood is a worldly force accustomed to political maneuver and compromise; the Salafis are genuine theocrats. The Salafis would probably demand clauses in the constitution limiting the rights of women or non-Muslims and would try to legislate morality, which Brotherhood parliamentarians have avoided seeking to do in the past. A Brotherhood-Salafi alliance would draw a line right through Egyptian society and might well turn Tahrir Square into a cockpit of secular-Islamist confrontation.
Will the Brotherhood turn that way? The New York Times‘ account of the electoral outcome largely accepted that view. And it’s true that the Islamists can now dispense with liberal forces if they want to. On the other hand, Saad el-Katatni, the party secretary general, has explicitly rejected an alliance with Al Nour, the main Salafi group. Marina Ottaway, an Egypt expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, points out that during the campaign season, the Freedom and Justice Party tried to build an alliance with secular forces — which ultimately formed a compact of their own — and refused to join an Islamist alliance. "If I had to take a bet about that right now," Ottaway says, "I would bet they would form an alliance with the more secular parties and the more moderate elements."
Joshua Stacher, an academic at Kent State University who has studied the inner workings of the Brothers, views them less as an Islamic body than as a giant jobs program. Stacher doesn’t think the Brotherhood will provoke a civil war with secular forces, but he also doesn’t think they will stand up to the generals who have replaced President Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood is no longer an opposition party, Stacher notes: "They’re part of the political elite." He can imagine a scenario in which the Brotherhood backs Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s intelligence chief and right-hand man, for president — a dreadful thought.
What is certainly true is that the prospect of finally gaining power has turned the Brothers into allies of Egypt’s military rulers. While other forces stood up against the SCAF’s brutality and called for a postponement of elections, the Brotherhood held its tongue and stayed off the street. In a recent speech, Mohammed Badie, the leader of the Brotherhood, known as the supreme guide, lamely explained that his members had declined to join the mass demonstrations — which led to the deaths of at least 40 protesters — out of fear of a "conspiracy" seeking "to lure the Brotherhood to the square" and then incite violence. Badie blamed the bloodshed on the ubiquitous "hidden hands" — Israel, the United States, the CIA — rather than security forces acting on behalf of the military.
On balance the Brotherhood might be less inclined to forge an alliance with the Salafis than it will be to serve as a facade and a prop for the military. (The same may be true of the PJD in Morocco, though it would be providing window dressing for the palace rather than the generals.) That would indeed amount to hijacking the revolution. But this is what democracy is for. Should the Brotherhood become an Islamist-accented version of Mubarak’s old National Democratic Party, the Egyptian public won’t stand for it. The Islamists could win one election, but lose the next. Of course there’s the fear that they simply wouldn’t stage another election. But the Brotherhood’s own members wouldn’t stand for that. "The era of ‘one man, one vote, one time’ is over," says Stacher.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s administration has been reaching out to the Brotherhood. Last week, two midlevel State Department officials went to the organization’s headquarters to meet with Essam el-Erian, a senior Brotherhood leader and the party’s vice chairman. With the apparent Islamist victory, Obama may be tempted to pull back and perhaps even reduce the pressure on the SCAF to hand over power to a civilian government. The United States has, after all, been doing business with military rulers in Egypt for 60 years. But that era, too, is over. Whatever threat the Islamists pose, to Egypt or to the West, pales before the threat of further clumsy and brutal military rule.