Why Islamists Won’t Win (Even If They Do)
This is the dominant story now – Islamists are winning all over the Arab world. It is not being mentioned that there are many factors working in their favor. They have been organized for decades while some leftists and liberals have just started. It is not mentioned that Islamists have been benefiting from Gulf money and have utilized that external funding effectively. It is also not being mentioned that they have been striking deals under the table with the US and European governments to reassure them not only regarding the pro-capitalist (neoliberal) policies that they would pursue, but also regarding not antagonizing Israel.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood forgot about its past objection to the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, while the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood dispatched its former leader to reassure Israelis on Israeli TV. An-Nahda’s Ghannushi wanted to preserve all the key financial appointments of Bin `Ali and had dispatched the secretary general of his party to reassure Zionists in Washington think tanks. In Morocco, Bin Kiran (head of the Justice and Development Party) is a different story altogether because he has been a loyal royal Islamist who would not challenge the pro-Israeli and neoliberal policies of his master. But the story of Islamist victories may be overblown.
Islamists have not been winning more than half of the votes. It should be impossible now to reduce all Arab public opinion to religious ideologies. In Tunisia, the Islamists won some 41 percent of the vote, while their share in Morocco is around a quarter. There are other tendencies and Arabs are showing a diversity of views and choices. Once new parties emerge and make themselves known in a new political climate, the political map will change rather gradually (or maybe quickly).
But the Islamists are in a bind. The demise is rather inevitable. They can’t fulfill their promises and win. They have been striking deals with GCC countries and Western powers in contradiction with their own ideology and earlier promises. On the “morality” front, the Islamists know that they can’t push for a religious agenda as extreme as the one promised by the unelected NATO government in Libya (`Adbul-NATO could not wait before announcing this desire for the return of polygamy). They know that a morality agenda would alienate many voters (as already happened in Tunisia regarding the issue of niqab on campus) and for that they would veil their true intentions, at least for a while.
If they continue to postpone their agenda, their rank-and-file will accuse them of abandoning their principles, and if they push ahead with their agendas, they will alienate voters and also alienate their new friends and sponsors in Western capitals. In some cases as in Egypt, the Islamists may have struck secret deals with the military, which can often act as the enforcer of Western agendas during the time of transition (or even during the time of democracy).
The Islamists are stuck. They will most likely be accused by their supporters of deviating from their principles. That accusation will stick and sting: nothing has damaged the fortunes of Arab nationalists parties than the perception that those parties, like the Ba`th, have contradicted all of their principles in power. Instead of unity, they gave fragmentation; instead of freedom, they produced new torture techniques; instead of liberation of Palestine, they presided over wars that gave Israel more Arab lands. People would expect the new victors to account for their promises. Those promises are not likely to be fulfilled. Thus, they will be swept aside, either by more extreme (and principled) Islamists or by secular alternatives.
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