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.
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.
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.
"Hasty" elections are not always a bad thing.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Islamism is not monolithic.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Islamists can be influenced.
noted, pragmatism in politics is a fairly new imperative for the region's
Islamists. But will they display pragmatism in foreign policy as well?
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.
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,
stand at equal distance from all Palestinian factions."
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.
The real tests are yet to come.
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.
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.
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.
then must we do?
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.
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.
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.