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.