A persistent question we have heard during each Arab uprising across the Arab world in the past year has been, “What happens after the regime falls? Who takes over power?” This is usually asked with a tone of foreboding, with concern that bad or unknown political forces will assume power. Most worry revolves around the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists assuming power, on the grounds that they are the best organized 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 or, I sense, likely, fall of the Assad family dynasty of 42 years.
It is time for analysts to get over their worries and 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, in the Arab world must necessarily pass through a phase of Islamist rule or of coalition governments in which Islamists play a role.
This is one conclusion we should draw from the track record of the past year, during which time Islamists have 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 victory of Islamists in Kuwait’s parliamentary elections last month was the most telling performance, providing useful insights into why we need to get used to the fact that Islamists will hold executive power in many countries for some years ahead.
The Feb. 2 Kuwaiti elections followed the emir’s dissolution of Parliament after repeated public protests demanding 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 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 of this phenomenon are important to keep in mind: why the Islamists keep winning, and what happens to Islamism in executive power. Islamists win in part because they have the most organized networks to mobilize voters, but mainly because they are the most trusted public or political groups in societies. This trust in turn is based on their track record of courageously challenging oppressive or autocratic regimes in recent decades, and the citizen’s common perception that they are honest, non-corrupt fellow citizens who will guide public life according to core Islamic values, including – ideally – modesty, mercy, charity, honesty, piety, justice and respect.
In moments of national change and upheaval, defined by uncertainty and stress, it is totally normal that citizens would seek comfort and confidence in those forces whom they trust – the Islamists, in these cases, whether mainstream Muslim Brotherhood types or more fundamentalist Salafists. 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. My sense of this phenomenon is that, first, Islamists who assume executive authority do so for a transitional period only, and second, that incumbency transforms Islamism and effectively ends its life as an assertive opposition movement. When Islamists take or share power, as they now do in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Kuwait, they must instantly transform themselves from sloganeering opposition groups who live in the world of rhetoric and high ideals, and are unencumbered by real-life requirements of delivering what citizens need from their political leaders, to incumbent officials who must address dozens of urgent issues, such as employment, clean water, security, and affordable food and housing.
The sobering impact of incumbency effectively marks the death-knell of Islamist politics as we have known it since the late 1970s, when the current crop of Islamist groups entered the Arab political scene.
Islamists who form governing coalitions with secular, business, military or other groups in society must necessarily work overtime to forge realistic policies that can respond to the many urgent needs of their fellow citizens. If they succeed in promoting economic growth, social equity, stability and constitutional 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 participating in coalitions affirm the secular nature of the ruling authority and state, while enhancing the adherence of citizens to their Islamic values.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.