Islamists face the test of incumbency

The ongoing transformations across the Arab world have already ushered in several unprecedented developments – the birth of the empowered Arab citizen, of open political contestation, and of a nascent process of national self-determination. This month we witness yet another historic first: incumbent political Islamists who share executive power, dominate parliaments, enjoy populist electoral legitimacy, and are accountable to their fellow citizens. Electorally triumphant Islamists are no surprise, and thus not so significant or frightening, given their strong support in society. The really important phase of Arab political transformation is not the Islamists’ victories, but the fact that Islamists share executive power and are subjected for the first time to the unforgiving test of incumbency.

Now it really gets interesting, which is why now is also the time when those who have a tendency to panic should take some tranquilizers and calm down, if in fact they are truly committed to democracy as a universal right.

Islamists winning recent free and fair elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, as they have done in recent weeks, is no surprise, because of their massive followings in Arab countries for different reasons, in large part because they offered the only feasible outlet for any Arab who was unhappy with prevailing government policies or socio-economic conditions. Election victories have transformed Islamists from unburdened outsiders to incumbent insiders. Incumbent, accountable Islamists are a new species of Arab political beast that is totally untested. The Islamist parties assuming office are faced with massive immediate challenges that they must respond to, in the arenas of job creating, economic revitalization, domestic political restructuring, foreign policy, and, in cases like Libya, creating new national governance systems alongside even a durable sense of national unity.

The challenges are so big and so pressing that these governments have to deliver quickly and efficiently, or they will find themselves booted out of office by that immense new force that now hovers above every incumbent Arab official: populist will and legitimacy, expressed on the street or in elections. The enormity of this transformation should not be underestimated. The birth of the Arab citizen and politics that I have called the most significant new developments of the past year are encapsulated by the wider phenomenon of populist legitimacy that now provides the benchmark of politics in newly liberated Arab countries. This force is gradually replacing the total control of power that was once exercised by foreign-supported military regimes across the Arab world.

Islamists in Morocco, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia will be the first to live in this new Arab political world, but we also see signs of this reality in places like Jordan and Kuwait, where street activism and opposition assertion have forced the monarchs to respond to popular demands and grievances. Even strong military and mukhabarat (intelligence) regimes must take account of popular demands these days. How this process plays itself out in the years ahead will determine the nature and durability of the democratic transformations under way across our region, which will certainly range from impressive to superficial.

The transitions under way in Libya, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia – and others certainly to follow in the year ahead – are the most delicate but significant phase of the move from authoritarian to democratic and inclusive societies. They now put to the test three parallel and important elements: Can the dominant Islamists perform efficiently, master the art of coalition governance, and respond to citizen demands and the national wellbeing? Can the other parties that trailed the Islamists, both secular and other Islamists, learn the lessons of their defeats and regroup to create an effective opposition that can make the democratic system a success, and peaceful rotation of power a reality anchored in the will of the citizenry? Can the rule-of-law system operate efficiently and preserve the strengths of the open electoral democracies that are being born across the Arab world, in fields such as the media, the judiciary and civil society?

The big story across the Arab world since last December has been the assertion of citizen rights and the overthrow of authoritarian regimes. The historically more significant big story now is not the victory of Islamists, as much of the Western political analysis would have us believe – for that is as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow – but rather the reconfiguration, rebirth and relegitimization of Arab governance systems. It does not much matter if Islamist parties, secular liberals or Donald Duck fan clubs garner the most votes. The historic yet delicate phase we now enter is important mainly for seeing free and democratic Arabs work to develop power structures and political governance mechanisms in which ruling governments enjoy popular legitimacy and are simultaneously held accountable to that same awesome force of the consent of the governed and the will of the majority, while protecting minority rights.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 08, 2011, on page 7.




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