Saturday, December 3, 2011

Behind the Islamist Wave Elections in the Arab World

by Anna Mahjar-Barducci

The International press has been writing that the Arab world -- in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt -- has been hit in the recent elections by an Islamist "wave." However, one must looks [sic] carefully behind the election results to understand what it is really going on. Take Tunisia, for example, where elections were held last October for the Constituent Assembly, consisting of 217 lawmakers. The Islamist party Ennahda won a relative majority (not the absolute one), with 89 seats. If one looks more closely at the other parties that entered in the Constituent Assembly, however, the majority of them are left-oriented.

The problem with these elections was that the Tunisians -- maybe because they were so excited to have their first free elections -- presented 1570 electoral lists, and 11.000 candidates for 110 parties running for election. Many of these parties were just copies the others or, in many instances, differentiated only by small nuances. The socialist, liberal and democratic parties made the mistake of not forming a coalition, hence dispersing the vote.

There were many liberal-oriented parties that achieved just one seat each, thereby having no weight inside the Constituent Assembly. Tunisia's Ennahda had a program and was organized and united, but the democratic opposition was totally fragmented and too busy busy to decide on who should be heading what. If parties with similar ideologies would have united instead of creating new lists, the outcome of these elections would have been slightly different. Ennahda managed to get a relative majority basically because it was facing an opposition that was unprepared. It is not possible to run an election with more than a hundred parties: the votes become too fragmented.

With fewer parties and a democratically-united alliance , Ennahda might have won less than 40% of the vote, but would still have obtained a good result. The Islamist party undertook a good door-to-door campaign and had a clear-cut message on social issues and against corruption. The opposition movements, instead, often failed to deliver a message, and some parties were so elitist that they were unable to reach the masses altogether.

Many Tunisians decided not to go to vote. In part of the society there is disillusionment with politics concerning the economy and liberal freedoms. Despite the initial announcement that the 70% of eligible voters went to cast their votes, data confirmed that the percentage was lower: only 54%. As this was the first free, historic and pluralistic election in the country, people expected a higher turnout. Extremist Salafist movements also were trying to threaten the society and, despite the government's concern, political parties appear totally impotent to face these jihadist groups.

Tunisia does not have an Islamist society at all: the victory of Ennahda should be interpreted as a failure of the opposition probably not yet politically mature after having been crushed by years of dictatorship.

While the liberal opposition under the regime of former president Zine Abidine Ben Ali was totally destroyed, the Islamists managed to survive, becoming the only structured opposition against the dictatorship. Why the Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt were not crushed as the liberals were is that neither Ben Ali nor Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak, wanted a liberal third way backed by the West. The idea was not to have any liberal group to emerge between the "Palace" and the "Mosque," in order not to have any competitor with the U.S. and Europe. Another reason the Islamists and Salafists survived under the dictatorship is because they enjoyed financial help mainly from Gulf countries; the liberals had no one to support them.

In Morocco and Egypt, there was the common denominator: not only did the the democratic opposition fail to get united; in some instances, it also failed to convince the electorate of its message or to present a viable leader,. In Egypt, who should have been the democratic opposition? Amr Moussa and El Baradei are not appealing candidates -- a deficiency that left Egyptians with not a great choice.

There is also another element, underlined by the Moroccan weekly, Tel Quel: the people were tempted to try the "Islamist Solution," which was crying out to stop corruption. While the "Socialist Solution" was not something new to the Arab world and had already failed in Egypt, Sudan and Algeria by transforming itself in a dictatorship, the "Islamist Solution" was, for many Arab countries, still untried and therefore politically "pure." As Tel Quel wrote, what was described as an "Islamist Wave" could also be explained not by the strength of the Islamist parties but by the weakness-through-splintering of the others -- as perhaps even more by the possibility that the electorate wanted to see at least once if the campaign slogan "Islam is the Solution" might be true.

Anna Mahjar-Barducci


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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