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Learning to Live With the Islamist Winter
What to make of the historic election results in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya -- and how the United States should respond.
Wednesday’s sharp uptick in violence in Syria led the news, but overshadowed a far more peaceful milestone. The announcement of Libya’s election results on Tuesday marked the end of a tumultuous period in which three revolutionary Arab states (Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya) all held their first sets of genuine electoral contests — among the freest and fairest ever carried out in the Arab world. With many dozens of parties and many hundreds of candidates running, the elections were also the most competitive. And in most — but not all — of these polls, Islamist parties and movements came out ahead. This seems a worthy moment, then, to take stock of what the outcomes in these three North African countries can — and can’t — tell us about the future of democratic politics in the Arab world.
It’s not surprising that Islamist movements have been the largest beneficiaries so far of the Arab Awakening’s newly competitive politics. Ever since Algeria’s military-backed government canceled elections in 1992 to prevent an Islamist victory, scholars have predicted that more open Arab elections would spell success for Islamist movements. And for at least that long, the prospect of Islamists rising to power through the ballot box has fostered anxiety in Washington and elsewhere in the region (particularly Jerusalem). Thus, the June 30 inauguration of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy as president of Egypt has produced predictable jeremiads that the Arab Spring is now becoming an "Islamist winter" — one that presages illiberal, ultimately undemocratic politics and anti-American, anti-Israeli foreign policies.
But just as this initial Islamist surge is not surprising, it is also not the end of the story. Although the results must be respected and the victors recognized, neither of these political realities signals the demise of Arabs’ democratic future, or of Washington’s capacity to preserve its interests in the region. That is, unless those with a stake in the game leave the field in disgust or despair. Herewith are four key lessons that these democratic elections can teach us about the new Arab politics.
1. "Hasty" elections are not always a bad thing.
Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya set ambitious, even daunting, timelines for their formative elections, and all three ended up delaying those elections by weeks or months. And yet, in all three cases, elections ultimately went forward within a year of the revolution, with voter turnout proving strong and voting peaceful.
Yes, there were voices both on the streets and in Western capitals arguing against a rush to the ballot box. In all three elections, analysts worried that both politicians and the public were unprepared to participate and faced too little clarity about what the outcome would mean. The case for delay was strongest in Egypt, where the electoral rules dictated by the military council and its serial suppression of basic rights did not allow for a fully fair and transparent process (and where the resulting parliament has now been dissolved in a series of byzantine maneuvers of questionable legality).
The leaderless nature of the revolutions, which has made post-revolution politics more complicated, has also made elections more valuable. In each country, there was no single political party that could claim the mantle of the democratic opposition, and no charismatic leader to steward the transitional period and beg for public patience as it proceeded. That’s why holding these elections was so important — it helped test the strength of parties, promote political bargaining and advance the democratic transition.
Ultimately, those arguing for elections to be pushed off until after constitutions had been drafted overlooked the most important aspect of the Arab Awakening: the demand by Arab citizens for self-determination. Elections alone do not create democracy, but voting is at its very core. Arab citizens want to express their preferences and hold officials accountable for their actions; far better for them to do that by voting than by hitting the streets.
Where elected officials aren’t able to exercise full authority, though, accountability breaks down and public trust in the process erodes. This is the challenge now in Egypt, where Morsy and the military council who took over some presidential powers can now point fingers at one another instead of taking responsibility for governance. A case in point: Morsy is not expected to try and appoint a government until after Ramadan.
2. Islamism is not monolithic.
As noted, the success of Islamists in Egyptian and Tunisian elections is mostly explained by the shape of politics in the region before the uprisings. Islamists owe their support in part to the power of religious rhetoric and grassroots loyalty bought through social services, but there’s a deeper reason for their ascent. In my 2008 book, Freedom‘s Unsteady March, I noted that Arab autocrats’ suppression of dissent meant that Islamist groups had an organizational advantage over secular politicians because they could use religious and social institutions — mosques and charities — as a base from which to work. The longer dictators squeezed dissent, I argued, the stronger the Islamist advantage would grow. The victory of these parties thus says very little either about U.S. influence during the political transitions or about the longer-term prospects for Islamist movements in emerging Arab democracies.
The Islamists’ organizational advantage did not hold in Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya, which was so repressive that no group had space to organize. After 42 years of rule by the Green Book, Libya’s first election saw no meaningful ideological competition between leftists, liberals, and Islamists — indeed, Libyan voters seemed to have little patience for any ideology in the face of their day-to-day challenges. Those relying on charisma or tribal loyalty also failed to show strength at the polls. In the end, the victorious National Forces Alliance won on a pragmatic platform of building a strong state to serve the long-neglected population, and that unifying agenda won in 12 of 13 districts nationwide. But while described in the Western press as "liberal," Mahmoud Jibril’s winning coalition is still quite religiously conservative. Islam will heavily shape Libya’s political future — the question is: What kind?
Between the 1992 Algerian elections and today, the world of political Islam became significantly more diverse. One of the most surprising aspects of the post-revolutionary elections, especially in Egypt, is the emergence of Salafi groups as electoral competitors. After all, just a few years ago they were condemning elections as haram, a violation of God’s sovereignty over human affairs. And yet, as Middle East specialist Will McCants demonstrates in a recent analysis, Egypt’s Salafis made the pragmatic judgment that running for office was better than ceding the field to others. They adjusted their theological arguments to match this new approach.
Indeed, both the Salafis and the Muslim Brothers in Egypt made decisions with a clear eye on maximizing their gains at the polls. Nowhere was this clearer than in the Egyptian Brotherhood’s shifting positions in parliamentary and presidential balloting. At first, they promised to run for only one-third of the parliamentary seats and to refrain from running for president. But as their electoral advantage grew clearer and their ties to revolutionary forces more fraught, they decided to try to take the whole pie.
Both Salafis and the Brotherhood also seemed to assume (and may still) that electoral victory would allow them to set the rules of the new political order. But in Egypt the Brotherhood’s efforts to dominate parliament and railroad the constitutional assembly lost them votes in the presidential race and produced a fierce backlash from many liberals, who have now allied themselves with the military to constrain Morsy. In Tunisia, the Islamist al-Nahda party can only rule in coalition with two secular partners, forcing compromise on nearly every major policy decision. The leading Islamist movements, in other words, are already facing the fact that winning an election is one thing, but achieving gains in office that will help win the next election is something else entirely — and requires persuasion, compromise, and coalition-building. The question is whether Islamists will internalize this crucial lesson and learn to compromise.
In the new Arab world, Islamists will likely win many elections — but they are also now competing with one another in unprecedented ways. In Libya, in fact, competition for votes among a variety of Islamist coalitions may have doomed them all to defeat. While this competition may force groups like al-Nahda to watch its right flank, it also compels Islamists to move beyond vague slogans ("Islam is the solution") and articulate and defend their preferred policies. For voters accustomed to seeing them as the only alternative to the dictators they despised, this new reality may bring the Islamists down to Earth.
3. Islamists can be influenced.
As noted, pragmatism in politics is a fairly new imperative for the region’s Islamists. But will they display pragmatism in foreign policy as well?
The United States, of course, is concerned not only with democratic rules but also with the foreign-policy preferences of the region’s new leaders. Here, the Islamists’ bias is clear, and often runs counter to U.S. views — indeed, hostility toward the United States and particularly its close ally Israel may be the one thing on which they all unreservedly agree. And yet none of these Islamists, save perhaps Egypt’s Morsy (if the army will let him), have much opportunity to shape Arab-Israeli affairs or the fate of the Palestinians. They can bloviate, and they can invite Hamas leaders to visit — as al-Nahda has already done and Morsy is doing today. But for now, they can’t do much else.
Meanwhile, newly empowered Islamists must focus on urgent problems at home — problems that demand international and especially American assistance to solve. The U.S. role is especially important on economic issues: American aid, American votes in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and American trade and technical assistance can all have major impacts on the ability of post-revolutionary rulers to weather economic crisis and begin to meet the demands of their expectant voters. American diplomacy with Gulf donors is also significant, and Brotherhood visitors to Washington have asked for help in repairing their relations with these countries. With Europe mired in economic crisis, U.S. leadership in supporting the transitional states in the region is more valuable than ever.
One needn’t be credulous about the Islamists’ predilections to see that the U.S. government can use their interest in its "seal of approval" — these newly empowered parties want to be seen as legitimate internationally — and in trade and economic assistance to bind them more closely to core norms of democratic politics and responsible foreign policy. Already, a range of Islamist politicians from across the region have visited Washington and issued assurances about their opposition to terrorism and adherence to international treaty obligations. Newly ascendant Islamists are unlikely to allow Israel, or any other symbolic foreign-policy issue, to dominate relations with the United States unless they are prepared to jettison public welfare and their own political success in favor of ideological purity, and to very little actual effect. It’s notable that Morsy was careful to welcome Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Egypt before meeting Hamas leaders on Thursday, and told reporters last week, "We stand at equal distance from all Palestinian factions."
There’s one important exception to this analysis: Should the military refuse to yield power in Egypt, or should economic or security conditions in any of these states deteriorate beyond governmental control, then cheap anti-Israel or anti-Western populism could easily become irresistible. But these contingencies simply underscore the fact that the United States has a crucial role to play in shaping developments that will influence the moderation (or, perhaps more accurately, the containment) of Islamist foreign-policy preferences.
4. The real tests are yet to come.
Now that the founding democratic elections are over, the focus of the transitions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya is shifting from vote-getting to rule-making: setting the guidelines — and the red lines — for the new political institutions that will emerge from the ashes of the revolutions. Despite their various promises, we know very little about how Islamist parties intend to rewrite the rules of the game, but there are troubling indications on issues like equal rights for women and non-Muslims. Under the Mubaraks and the Qaddafis, the Islamists’ status as the default opposition allowed them to remain ambiguous on major issues that are central to democratic politics. What, for example, does "sharia as the basis for legislation" really require? There are as many answers as there are Islamists, and the proliferation of Islamist candidates and parties has begun to provoke public splits on these very questions. The outcomes of these debates will be crucial in determining where Arab democracy might go.
Yes, today’s Islamist victors might turn out to be bad news for democracy or for U.S. foreign policy. But their emergence was inevitable and preventing their victory was never in the cards. This doesn’t mean, though, that the United States has no cards to play. While we don’t know whether Islamists in power in Arab countries will moderate, we do have evidence that they are not incorrigible. They are sensitive to American views, and have eagerly changed course on issues and tactics when politically advantageous. Most important, they will face the public in future elections.
The fact that Islamists’ real political success has yet to be tested underscores how important it is to refrain from declaring either triumph or disaster based on any given incremental development in a tortuously complex process that is ultimately about political bargaining. A related conclusion is that the United States and other interested parties must stay vigilant and engaged. The game is not over — it has just begun.
What then must we do?
As the North African revolutionaries write their new constitutions, the United States can and should work consistently to support the conditions that will ensure that rule-making is inclusive — no tyrannies of the majority — and that the next elections will be at least as free and fair as the ones that just concluded. And the United States still has plenty of levers to do so, as well as to protect its security interests.
What does this mean in practical terms? First, to advance pluralism and robust competition, the United States must press for basic rights and democratic accountability, in part through strong support for the Arab civil society organizations working to advance those goals and see those values enshrined in new constitutions. Second, the U.S. government should continue to engage with liberal and other political movements and encourage them to use the period before their post-constitutional elections to organize and build stronger grassroots support. The United States must refrain from picking winners and respect the outcomes of democratic elections, but it can continue offering political party training and technical assistance in elections management on a neutral basis to whomever wants it. Finally, as it reaches out to newly elected leaders, Washington should make clear what America’s core concerns are with respect to democracy, pluralism, and regional stability — and should state unequivocally that American aid, trade ties, and other forms of cooperation will flow most to those who make choices that are sensitive to those core American interests. Arabs can choose their leaders, and Americans can choose where and how to spend their scarce tax dollars.
There’s no question that American influence has declined, if by that we mean that the U.S. president can’t simply call up his old pal Hosni (or Zine, or Abdullah) anymore and get exactly what he wants. Islamist or not, Arab leaders, even the unelected ones, are now more attuned to the preferences of their own populace. In the future, the United States will have to engage more with Arab politicians and Arab publics to build coalitions in support of our common interests. American officials will have to talk intensively with conservative leaders about how their ideological instincts mesh with their political interests, and persuade them that pragmatism and moderation pay dividends. In other words, the U.S. approach to building relations with post-Arab Spring Egypt will have to look more like U.S. efforts to build relations with post-Cold War Poland. That’s not interference — that’s mutual respect.