BEIRUT - The democratic moment is upon us in the Arab world, and with it come a range of new questions that are much more interesting than the old ones that lingered for many decades. The Islamists’ strong showing in the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections this week, following similar trends in Tunisia and Morocco, suggests that many people who wondered about democracy and the Arab-Islamic world have been asking the wrong question for years. That wrong question that many have openly posed is whether Arabs and Muslims can embrace democratic culture and make it work, whether democracy and Arabism/Islam are compatible. It now seems more correct to say that the real issue before us is whether dominant Western cultures and the traditional ruling elites in the Arab world will allow and embrace the full democratic experience in the Arab world, where Islamist parties are emerging victorious from the first elections in post-dictatorial states.
Three separate issues converge here and should be addressed in parallel: The Arab capacity to democratize, the meaning and behavior of incumbent Islamists, and the attitude of Western countries. On the first point, the capacity and commitment of Arab societies to democratic practices, including open elections, a free press, and coalition governments, now seems firmly affirmed, and in fact was never in doubt, except perhaps in the minds of lingering colonialists and racists.
The second issue -- the new reality of democratically elected incumbent Islamists -- in fact comprises two sub-issues: Why are they victorious, and how they will behave in power? The first is easy: Islamists are sweeping the polls because their brand of faith-based good governance appeals to the two dominant needs of citizens in the realms of their personal dignity and their public life. Islamists also are reaping the rewards of being the main parties that were courageous enough to challenge the old Arab authoritarian orders. Their victories are no surprise and were widely expected.
How Islamists behave in power remains to be seen. Many people raise legitimate concerns about how Islamists might enforce new rules on social issues, or relations with Israel, the United States, Arab states and Iran. The signals most Islamists have been sending in recent months suggest that they understand the nature of coalition governments and democratic compromises. They also now have to deal with the new reality of being accountable to the entire citizenry -- not just their narrow base of supporters. They must now deliver on important issues like deepening democracy, creating jobs, improving education, affirming the role of the justice system, and other such pressing national challenges. If they govern well, they will be rewarded and re-elected; if they fail the unforgiving test of incumbency, they will be rejected in the next election.
The third issue is the most troubling, because it suggests that many skeptics in the West and in the Middle East itself are not fully committed to Arab democratic transformations, but rather seek more Arab democracy only if new elected officials are friendly to the United States and Israel and do not try to institute strict new social rules. I suspect that reasonable people across the region and the world have learned the lessons of their mistakes in preventing democratically victorious Arab Islamists from assuming power in the past, especially in Algeria and Palestine. The situation today is very different, because elected Islamist parties ride a powerful wave of populist legitimacy that did not exist before.
The same wave that brought them into power can send them home again if they fail to perform. There is no doubt that this initial series of victories is partly a distorted response to the many decades of Arab authoritarianism, police states, corruption, military incompetence, subservience to foreign powers, abuse of power, lack of justice and equity, and imbalanced national development. There is no avoiding the current Islamist wave of victories. We are now in that transitional phase when voters are simultaneously expressing their resentments about their past treatment by their governments, their strong sense of social and religious identity, and their hopes for better governance in the immediate future. Islamists capitalize on all three of these powerful drivers of citizen behavior. The first two of these motivations will quickly fade in the wake of the electoral victories, and ultimately the Islamists will be judged by their performance in the years ahead.
So here in my view is the new question of the day: Is the collection of Islamists leaders now sharing power in the Arab world any better or worse than the slightly bizarre collection of Republic Party candidates for the American presidency, who similarly exploit a combination of their fellow citizens’ populist resentments, religious identity and nationalist malaise? Perhaps we now witness in both the United States and some Arab countries the simultaneous grandeur and gaps in the nature of democracy, which at once captures the towering importance of the principle of the consent of the governed, while also providing space for angry and abused people to vent their frustrations and honor their God at the same time.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global