No Reason to Fear the Democratic Experiment
Almost a year after the start of the Arab Spring, have the results of the first truly free elections in Egypt destroyed the new Arab democracy movements' dream of freedom, the rule of law and a life of dignity?
One might feel that they have, at least since the surprising success of the radical Islamist Salafists in the first round of parliamentary elections in Egypt. But that would be a premature and overly simplistic conclusion to draw, especially in view of the unclear political situation in post-revolutionary Arab nations.
It is true that the ultra-conservative Salafists' understanding of Islam in Egypt is without doubt too narrow-minded to allow for constructive participation in a democratic political process. However, unlike the success of the politically inexperienced Salafists, the election victory of the Muslim Brotherhood's "Freedom and Justice" party was to be expected. This was also the case with the victory of the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco and the Ennahda movement in Tunisia.
Islamists played to their strengths
These movements are mainstream parties which are deeply rooted in the population thanks to their network of mosques, kindergartens and other charitable institutions. They are also well-organized and are not considered corrupt.
During the short campaign period, the Islamists were able to deflect attention away from the actual socio-economic problems by focussing on their populist discourse. Questions such as "who are we?" were as fiercely debated before the elections as if Arab societies were facing a hostile takeover! That explains why these movements were able to mobilize their supporters better than the newly formed liberal and civil youth parties, which were far less active during the campaign.
But panic or even hysteria are out of place in this historic situation. After all, none of the Islamist election winners in any Arab country will be able to determine the rules of the democracies to be established on their own.
Adapt and survive
In Tunisia, Ennahda has to enter a coalition with other secular parties. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will have to clearly distance itself from the Stone Age-Salafists if it wants to show itself to be a credible, reliable force for change and avoid confrontation with both the revolutionary movement and the military council.
More importantly, experience shows that democracy has to include major societal movements in the political system. There's no way around it. Only then do these fundamentalist oppositional forces learn what it really means to assume political responsibility. They have to practice the art of painful compromise and only then can they develop the ability to solve problems. In short: the normative power of reality inevitably makes them more pragmatic.
This means that the Arab neo-Islamists now have to decide: either they adapt to their changed environment or they continue to cling to their obsolete ideological concepts. Should they choose the second option, they will certainly fail to rise to the major challenges of the day, most notably the development of functioning institutions and the stimulation of the economy.
© Deutsche Welle 2011
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de