“If the Arab Spring was seeded by a liberal insurrection, the Arab Fall has brought a rich harvest for Political Islam,” writes Time magazine’s Bobby Ghosh.
There’s no secret to the Islamists’ success, he claims: there may be doubts about the depth of their commitment to democracy, but they are nevertheless better democratic politicians:
The Islamists, it turns out, understand democracy much better than the liberals do. [Tunisia’s] Ennahda and the [Moroccan] FJP were not just better organized, they also campaigned harder and smarter. ….. Like smart retail politicians everywhere, they played to their strengths, capitalizing on goodwill generated by years of providing social services — free hospitals and clinics, soup kitchens — in poor neighborhoods.
“Having shown themselves adept at winning elections, will the Islamists now prove to be good democrats?” asks Ghosh. “Having proved themselves poor campaigners, will the defeated liberals now play by the rules?”
With 40% of Egyptians living below the official poverty rate, Islamists have won the political allegiance of poor and marginalized citizens by addressing their needs as well as rights:
The first clue to the success of the Brotherhood, Nicholas Kristof writes: its offices are social service agencies. Citizens dropped in to ask for blankets for the winter, and the party handed them out — along with campaign brochures. Several people asked for help paying medical bills, and they got it. In the evening, women arrived to take a free class about science.
Ironically, conservative Islamists have been considerably more effective than secular leftists in articulating a populist, class-based discourse that exploits resentment of liberal elites.
“A lot of the pro-Islamist vote was an anti-elite vote,” said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “There might be a class dimension to it, but I think there is more of an anti-intellectual, anti-elite discourse, of many people thinking that they were not given enough attention over the last 10 months and that few people bothered to ask them what they wanted.”
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood widely credited with using its network of social and welfare services to build an impressive political base, but their conservative Salafist rivals have also proved adept at populist politics.
“We are talking about the politics of resentment, and it is something that right-wing parties do everywhere,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “They feel like they represent a significant part of Egypt and that no one gives them any respect.”
While many Salafists are theoretically opposed to democracy as a heretical presumption of legitimacy that can only be divinely sanctioned, Egypt’s Nour party has put such theological niceties aside. Following its unanticipated performance in the recent constituent assembly elections, the party’s representatives have not only embraced but are now claiming ownership of democracy, reports suggest.
“The West took it from us,” said Sheikh Darwish. “They wrapped it and canned it and re-exported it to us.” Islam, he said, demanded equality and religious freedom for all, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish.
Unlike Egypt’s liberal elites, he claims, the Islamist represent a more radical authentic democracy:
Those people don’t live with us; they don’t express our pain or our hopes. And they will seek to once again clone a new regime with new figures other than Hosni and his men but with the same philosophy, the same democracy with its errors, the same capitalism with its errors, the same liberalism with its errors. And after the revolution, we accept nothing but real change.
The experience of Hamas rule in Gaza suggests that the current Islamist resurgence will not generate sustainable democratic transitions, a leading Israeli politician said today.
“We are not sure, to say the least, what we witness now is real democratization,” said Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said told a group of foreign journalists. “Hamas exploited the democratic rules of the game … to impose a non-democratic regime.”
Hamas won a plurality of the vote following elections in 2006 in the Palestinian territories, but subsequently seized control of the Gaza Strip in a violent coup, ejecting forces loyal to the mainstream Fatah movement.
“We believe that you can’t reach democracy by elections,” said Yaalon. “We believe in a long process. It should start by education.”
But the Arab world’s democratic upsurge has definitively killed the myth of Islam’s incompatibility with democracy, says Mustafa Akyol, author of the recently-released Islam without Extremes: a Muslim Case for Liberty.
Nevertheless, some Islamists have shown a questionable commitment to freedom of expression which leads to understandable skepticism about their commitment to genuine pluralism. They need to understand that democracy is the best defense for religiosity, he argues.
“Muslims need not need to betray their faith in order to embrace liberal democracy. By accepting other people’s ‘freedom to sin’ and ‘freedom from Islam’,” he writes, “they will be laying the right ground in which their own faith can flourish.”
The region’s secular dictatorships, “which created their Islamist mirror images, are falling,” Akyol recently argued. “And a slowly emerging middle class is looking at religious texts with a more rational and individualistic mind. Liberty is the destination to which these dynamics will ultimately lead us.”
If Islamists need to pay more attention to the liberal aspects of democracy, secular groups may be well-advised to focus on the socio-economic dimension and ensuring that democracy delivers.
If the Arab transitions are to avoid the Russian scenario of economic chaos breeding profound disillusion with democracy, “the overriding question remains whether newly-democratic governments can meet expectations,” as Madeleine Albright and Andrew Kohut recently argued:
Russia’s trajectory and our Middle Eastern surveys suggest three principles for nurturing democracy. First, economic progress is vital. Vibrant political parties matter, and so do competent administrators, transparent laws for business, a stable climate for investment and policies aimed at developing a middle class. Second, fairness counts. New leaders will have more time to succeed if they are given credit for insisting on equitable treatment……Finally, it is essential to do everything possible to prevent the idea of democracy from being hijacked by those promising an easier way. …. One can readily imagine an Arab version of Mr Putin arising, offering a platform that exploits economic yearnings and cultural pride, and that uses democratic means to seize power but then refuses to relinquish it.
“Arab protestors have not raised the banner of democratic reform so that their countries may one day revert to autocracy,” they conclude. “Even at its best, democracy can be frustrating, and slow, but it remains the superior means for uniting disparate populations, resolving disputes, and generating prosperity.”