- December 14, 2011
Why Islamists Are Better Democrats
If the Arab Spring was seeded by a liberal insurrection, the Arab Fall has brought a rich harvest for Political Islam. In election after election, parties that embrace various shades of Islamist ideology have spanked liberal rivals. In Tunisia, the first country to hold elections after toppling a long-standing dictator, the Ennahda party won a plurality in the Oct. 23 vote for an assembly that will write a new constitution. A month later, the Justice and Development Party and its allies won a majority in Morocco’s general elections. Now, in perhaps the most important election the Middle East has ever witnessed, Egypt’s Islamist parties are poised to dominate the country’s first freely elected parliament.
In the first of three rounds of voting, two Islamist groups won a clear majority between them: a coalition led by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) got 37% of the vote, while the al-Nour Party won 24.4%. The Egyptian Block, a coalition of mostly liberal parties, was a distant third, with 13.4%. The FJP is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, a mostly moderate Islamist group; al-Nour represents more-hard-line Salafis. With momentum on their side, the Islamists are expected to do even better in the second and third rounds, scheduled for Dec. 14 and Jan. 3.
Why have the liberals, leaders of the Arab Spring revolution, fared so poorly in elections? In Cairo, as the votes were being counted, I heard a raft of explanations from disheartened liberals. They were almost identical to the ones I’d heard the previous week, in Tunis. The litany goes like this: The liberals only had eight months to prepare for elections, whereas the Brotherhood has 80 years’ experience in political organization. The Islamists, thanks to their powerful financial backing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, outspent the liberals. The generals currently ruling Egypt, resentful of the liberals for ousting their old boss Hosni Mubarak, fixed the vote in favor of the Islamists. The Brotherhood and the Salafists used religious propaganda — Vote for us or you’re a bad Muslim — to mislead a largely poor, illiterate electorate.