As Tunisia Counts its Votes, Can the West Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Islamists?

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Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda Party at a rally in Ben Arous, October 21, 2011. (Photo: Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty Images)

Tunisia’s election and Libya’s celebration of the overthrow of Col. Muammar Gaddafi won’t have made for a happy weekend among those fevered heads in Washington who believe the West is locked in an existential struggle with political Islam: If anything, the Islamist tones of the Libyan celebrations, coupled with the Islamist victory in the Tunisian polls will have evoked the collapsing dominoes of Vietnam-era anti-communist metaphor.

“We are an Islamic country,” said Mustafa Abdel Jalili, leader of Libya’s Western-backed Transitional National Council in his speech proclaiming his country’s liberation on Saturday. “We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion.” As Jalili spoke of lifting a Gaddafi era ban on polygamy and called for an Islamic banking system (which bans charging interest on loans), he was greeted by thunderous chants of “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”). The character of Libya’s rebellion, at least among those doing the fighting rather than those doing the talking to Western governments, has been far more Islamist than its NATO backers may care to admit. Indeed, conspicuously absent from Jalili’s Benghazi liberation speech was Mahmoud Jibril, the Western-backed interim prime minister forced out at the behest of Islamist and regional militias, who accused him of trying to sideline them.

Jalili’s comments underscore the likelihood that a post-Gaddafi Libya will have a strongly Islamic character. Having emerged from a 42-year secular dictatorship, the smart money says that some version of political Islam will likely trounce any liberal rivals in the race to represent a national vision when a country riven by tribal and regional rivalries goes to the polls eight months from now.

In Tunisia, meanwhile, where some 90% of voters turned out to vote in the Arab rebellion’s first democratic poll, the only question remains whether the Islamist Ennahda party wins an outright majority, or must settle for a plurality of the vote that will requires it to lead a coalition government. Opposition parties had conceded on Monday, even before the count was completed, it was clear that Ennahda had won by far the largest share. The party’s leaders made clear, however, that they intended to seek a coalition.

There’s good reason to suspect that Tunisia’s electoral outcome will be repeated in an Egyptian poll: The main political contest there may turn out to be the one between the Muslim Brotherhood and its more radical Salafist challengers than between the Brotherhood and the secular liberals.

There’s no inherent contradiction between Islam and democracy — the range of political parties in the Muslim world claiming to be guided by Islamic values ranges from Turkey’s moderate, modernizing AK Party to the radical fundamentalist Salafis. Post-Saddam Iraq has been ruled by coalitions led by Shi’ite Islamist parties since its first election in 2005.

Democratically elected governments in the Arab world — most of which are likely to include a strong Islamist component, particularly when emerging from years of secular dictatorship — are highly unlikely to follow U.S. policy on Israel or Iran, but that doesn’t preclude them establishing pragmatic, cooperative relationships with the West. And if Washington’s yardstick for judging Arab political outcomes was the extent of support they yield for its own positions on Israel and Iraq, the U.S. would have to rely exclusively on dictators and monarchs.

The twitterati who featured most prominent in the media coverage of the Arab rebellion are unlikely to beat the Islamists at the polls. That’s not simply because Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi and Saddam gave secularism a bad name. Secular liberal parties, based largely in a relatively well-off segment of the urban middle class, have simply been unable to connect with the language and priority concerns of the impoverished majorities, which have for dccades been the Islamists’ social base.

“Ben Ali was successful [in cracking down] on the party and all of its institutions but he failed to control the hearts and minds of the people,”  Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s Nahda party recently told the Financial Times‘ Borzou Daragahi. “We lived in the people’s hearts. We speak a language that the people understand. We’ve always lived with the people. That is why the people know us.”

As Daragahi notes, Ennahda’s electoral success will reflect its ability to win “the support of the country’s pious poor.” And in the countries of the Arab Spring, it is the pious poor that constitute a majority.

Even though the Islamist parties were often viciously repressed by the dictatorships, they managed to retain a presence — through the mosques and through their extensive social and welfare programs, designed to ease the burden of the poor, often providing the only assistance because of the incapacities of the corrupt authoritarian regimes.

“Islamists have the benefit of a simple message to win votes, namely that they are following the true path of Islam with its promise of social justice,” writes the Financial Times‘ Roula Khalaf. “But it is their ability to organise and relate with populations in need that also gives them a political edge. Talk to people in impoverished neighbourhoods in Cairo and they will tell how the Brotherhood set up stands outside schools to sell notebooks at low prices, and fruit stalls during the holy month of Ramadan that offered dates at a fraction of the market price. Liberal parties are not mentioned because, unlike the Islamists, they lack an infrastructure of charities.”

The Islamists services include basic childcare, education and medical facilities, all compensating for the failures of the state and also creating a political channel for middle class professionals disgusted by their regime’s perceived obeisance to foreign powers and lack of dignity, and inspired by the Brotherhood’s ideology, to put their skills to work to boost its standing.

The prospects for secular democracy in post-rebellion Arab societies may, paradoxically, rest on the extent to which the Islamists are willing to embrace it. And the idea carries a lot more weight when it’s promoted by Turkey’s Prime Minister Racip Tayyip Erdogan, whose party is seen by many of the region’s Islamist as a role model,  than when it’s promoted by Washington. “Don’t be afraid of secularism,” Erdogan urged Egypt’s Islamists during a speech in Cairo last month. He later elaborated, saying “Secularism is not about being an enemy of religion. It is about the state maintaining the same distance from all religions and acting as a custodian of their beliefs. This is what we mean when we say don’t be afraid of secularism.”

Of course, the fact that many Egyptian Islamists were annoyed by Erdogan’s remarks — and the recent conflict over how to respond to the Egyptian junta’s passivity in the face of sectarian conflict — highlight that it’s far from certain that Erdogan’s thinking will win the day.

Tunisia’s Ghannouchi tends to articulate a similar moderate line to the Turkish leader, and Ennahda party officials on Monday reiterated that the party sees Tunisia’s priorities as  achieving “stability, conditions for a dignified life and the building of democratic institutions”, and that it was ready to work with anyone who shared those goals.

Many secular liberals feel this is a stealth program to usher in a theocratic dictatorship. But the “pious poor” obviously don’t share that view, and they have a vote. Besides, the idea of “protecting” the electorate from its own inclinations was precisely the rationale for the suppression of democracy by the regimes they’ve just ousted.

In Tunisia — as elsewhere — the Islamists don’t appear to be rushing to grab a monopoly on power. For one thing, they know as well as anyone that delivering on the economic expectations of a long-suffering people is an order as tall in Tunisia as it is in the United States, right now. And freedom came rather suddenly for the Islamists, bringing with it the challenge of defining what they stand for rather than simply what they’re against — a challenge that has already seen substantial (and healthy) splits in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Ennahda officials have made clear that they seek to operate in coalitions with others, and build a broad national consensus. In Egypt, too, the Brotherhood insists it won’t run for enough seats to give it a majority in a new legislature. And as mainstream Muslim Brotherhood affiliated groups seek to occupy the political center from more hardline Salafist rivals, they may have a vested interest in secularism as defined by Erdogan.

What last weekend’s Tunisia elections and Libya ‘liberation’ celebrations make clear, however, is that anyone seeking to deny or evade the fact of the centrality of political Islam is likely to be left on the sidelines by the democratization of the Arab world.