Islamist rule a given in Arab region

2012-03-03 10:55

One of the persistent comments we have heard during every Arab uprising across the region in the past year has been the refrain: “What happens after the regime falls? Who takes over power?”

This is usually asked in a foreboding tone, with concern that bad or unknown political forces will assume power. Most worries revolve around the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists assuming power, on the basis that they are the best organised political groups.

Sometimes this leads frightened people to conclude that it is better to stick with the governments we have – despite their flaws – rather than risk the unknown or an Islamist takeover of power.

We hear the same thing said about Syria these days, as many ponder the possible fall of the Assad family dynasty of 42 years.

It’s time for analysts to adjust to the overwhelming lesson from the first year of the ongoing Arab uprisings: the transition from autocracy to democracy, and from authoritarianism to pluralism; the entire Arab region must necessarily pass through a phase of Islamist rule or Islamist coalition governments.

This is one conclusion we should draw from the track record of the past year, when Islamists won pluralities or majorities in every election held (Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Kuwait, most significantly, with others to follow in Libya, Yemen and elsewhere).

The recent victory of Islamists in the Kuwaiti parliamentary elections earlier this month is the most telling performance, and provides useful insights into why we need to get used to the fact of Islamists in power in many Arab countries for some years ahead.

The February 2 Kuwaiti elections followed the Emir’s dissolution of parliament after repeated public protests that demanded a parliamentary investigation of the prime minister for alleged corruption and bribery.

In line with the rest of the Arab world, Kuwaitis gave the opposition – dominated by Islamists – 34 of the 50 seats in parliament. Wealthy and stable Kuwait is a world away from the poverty and social stresses of Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, yet here the Islamists also emerged as the leading voice of the citizenry.

Two dimensions are important: why the Islamists keep winning, and what happens to Islamism in executive power. Islamists win because they have the most organised networks to mobilise voters, but also because they are the most trusted public or political groups in these societies.

This trust is based on their track record of challenging oppressive or autocratic regimes and the citizen’s perception that they are honest, non-corrupt fellow citizens who will guide public life according to the core Islamic values, ideally, of modesty, mercy, charity, honesty, piety, justice and respect.

The evidence is now so compelling that nobody should be surprised any more at Islamist victories in Arab elections, or wonder what follows the downfall of a regime. The more interesting question is about the nature and duration of Islamist power.

When Islamists take or share power, they must instantly transform themselves from sloganeering opposition groups who live in the world of rhetoric and high ideals to incumbent officials who must address dozens of urgent issues such as employment, clean water, security and affordable food and housing.

If they succeed in promoting economic growth, social equity, stability and democracy – as the mildly Islamist ruling party does in Turkey – they will do so because of their capacity to govern efficiently, and they will be re-elected.

This will mark the stage at which Islamists in coalition power configurations affirm the secular nature of the ruling authority and state, while enhancing the adherence of citizens to their Islamic values.

– Distributed by Agence Global

» Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy at the American University of Beirut, ­Lebanon 

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