Wednesday's 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.
It's 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.
But 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.
Tunisia, 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.
Yes, 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).
The 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.
Ultimately, 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.
Where 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.