- June 1, 2009
Islamists Lose Ground in the Middle East
The results of Kuwait”s elections last month — in which Islamists were rebuffed and four women were elected to parliament — will likely reinvigorate the movement for greater democracy in the region that has stalled since the hopeful “Arab spring” of 2005. It also puts pressure on the Obama administration to end its deafening silence on democracy promotion.
Although ruled by a hereditary monarch, Kuwait is the most democratic of the Arab countries. The press is relatively free, parliament has real power, and politicians are chosen in legitimate elections. However, Kuwait is a part of the Persian Gulf, where the subordination of women is traditionally most severe. Historically, Kuwait”s political process was for males only. But in 2005 parliament yielded to female activists and approved a bill giving women the right to vote and hold office.
In 2006 and 2008, several women ran for parliament, though none won. The women that captured four of the 50 seats last month weren”t aided by quotas; they won on their own merits. Their success will undoubtedly inspire a new wave of women”s activism in nearby countries.
Almost as significant as the women”s gains were the Islamist losses. The archconservative Salafist Movement”s campaign for a boycott of female candidates obviously fell flat, and the number of seats held by Sunni Islamists fell sharply.
Thus continues a string of defeats for Islamists over the last year and a half from west to east. In September 2007, Morocco”s Justice and Development Party, a moderate Islamist group, was widely forecast to be the winner. Its support proved chimerical: It came away with 14% of the seats, trailing secularists. Iraq”s provincial elections this January signaled a turn away from the sectarian religious parties that had dominated earlier pollings. This trend, capped by Kuwait”s elections, has important implications.
What sapped the vitality of the “Arab spring” was the triumph of Islamists — the Muslim Brotherhood”s strong showing in Egypt”s 2005 parliamentary election, Hamas”s victory in Gaza, and Hezbollah”s ascendance in Lebanon. In response to these election results, the Bush administration muffled its advocacy of democracy in the Middle East. Some democrats in the region even took a go-slow stance.
To put it bluntly, these outcomes renewed questions about whether the Arabs were ready for democracy. If elections produce victory for parties that are not themselves democratic in practice or philosophy, then democracy is at a dead end. But the Kuwait election, following those in Iraq and Morocco, suggests that such fears may have been overblown.
If this election is a harbinger of larger developments, its symbol is Rola Dashti, an American-educated economist who led the fight for women”s political rights in Kuwait and who lost narrowly in 2006 and 2008 before triumphing this year.
Her victory was remarkable for several reasons. Half-Lebanese by birth, Ms. Dashti speaks Arabic with a distinct Lebanese accent that stamps her as an outsider in a relatively insular country. She is also proudly secular. She wears no head covering and makes no effort to conceal the fact that she remains unmarried although she is in her forties.
This flies in the face of the custom that is the essence of women”s subordination in the culture of the Gulf. The system of “guardianship” requires that women be under the supervision of some male — father, uncle, husband, brother or even son — at all times. Ms. Dashti lives with her divorced mother in a household devoid of males. She has brothers, but they serve as campaign aides rather than as guardians.
The fact that Kuwaiti voters sent Ms. Dashti and three other women to parliament suggests that the Arab world may be ready for democracy after all. The Obama administration should take heed.
Mr. Muravchik is a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His book, “The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East,” has just been published by Encounter.