First post-revolutions elections offered groups known as “Islamists” first positions in three Arab countries. This article attemps at explaining some of the reasons behind these results, and argues that post elections “islamists” will not remain the same forces that they were during their long journeys outside power and “official” politics. A guest commentary by Ziad Majed.
It was no surprise that “Islamists” with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood obtained 38 percent of the vote in Tunisia (represented by al-Nahda), and 36 percent in Egypt, where the movement was born (represented by the Freedom and Justice party).
The Brotherhood have always been a political and popular force, and had been banned or excluded by most Arab regimes for decades, which gave them the ability to claim being the only viable alternative. They contested the first free election after the changes in Tunisia and Egypt, arriving as “outsiders”, radically different from the dominant regimes and the weak (unbanned) oppositions. This gave them a type of “innocence” untainted by the past, making them in the eyes of many voters “beyond criticism of the bygone period.” And of course, they possessed an organization motivated by intense feelings of persecution, with extensive material resources, mobilization capabilities, and easy slogans, all of which supported their competitiveness.
As for Morocco, the Brothers did not pass the threshold of 26 percent of votes (represented by the Justice and Development party - JDP), though they were the largest single bloc. This is so for a number of reasons, which also correspond to what happened to their counterparts in Jordan two decades ago. They are well known, they were not victimized, and their political-religious identity is neither a representation of an exceptionality nor a conflicting one with the identity stemming from the throne of their king “the commander of the faithful” (another commonality with the Jordanian, the “descendent of the Hashemites”). Among these reasons likewise is the presence of secular radical opposition groups, attracting voters for political, and economic reasons far from the JDP agenda.
The surprise, by contrast, is the percentage of votes obtained by the Salafists in Egypt (led by the Party An-Nour), which was a full quarter of voters—surprising, because previous estimates did not give them more than 10 to 15 percent. But by scrutinizing their path, it is possible to explain aspects of their rapid rise, for they had not engaged in direct or electoral politics previously, and they benefited from many years of expanded activity and financing (coming in large part from the Gulf countries), experienced thriving growth in mosques and religious institutions, and gained public exposure via the media with campaigns for the hajj and for the veiling of women. Additionally, the authorities considered them an attractive element in the religious field, allowing them to retain a connection to Islamic social advocacy detached from politics, while restricting the ability of the Brotherhood to expand socially, and hence politically.
If this is therefore their first participation, it seems that they are the second force in the country, with rhetoric that differs radically from the rhetoric of the other forces, in terms of its relationship to a religious reference as the basis of politics. It will be very important to see how they will adapt to their new profile and reality.
However, more important than all that is the fact that the Brothers and Salafists in all cases have arrived to legislative power today, and might form the executive authority (or participate in it) tomorrow, on the basis of an electoral mandate according to democratic and alternation of power principles. In this, they are governed by political and legal constraints, with the possibility of accountability through the press, as well as through protests, forums, and then, coming elections.
Therefore, if they want to repeat their victories, they must translate their promises into solutions to unemployment and the problems facing fiscal, operational, tax, health, judicial, urban development, and productivity policies. Furthermore, they must develop pragmatic approaches to regional and international relations, among other State affairs. All these missions cannot be helped through morning prayers nor through Friday sermons!
In conclusion, it can be said that 2012 would be filled with political, ideological, and social confrontations in many Arab countries. As long as those confrontations remain peaceful and civil, only balances of power within societies will determin their outcomes. And this by itself, and regardless of some temporary conditions, will confirm one important matter: the Arab Spring of 2011 is irreversible.
Ziad Majed ist Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies an der American University of Paris und Koordinator des Arab Network for the Study of Democracy.