Have Islamists Really Won the Arab Spring?

Though religious parties have had some important successes, Libya and Morocco show they don't always dominate free Arab politics.

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An campaign billboard for Libya's secular National Forces Alliance, the winner of the country's election on July 7th. (Reuters)

Earlier this month, as a secular, liberal political coalition swept the polls in Libya, some Western observers hailed a "break in the Islamist tide" of post-Arab Spring electoral outcomes. Following victories for Islamists in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, it seemed stunning to find a Western-educated political scientist, Mahmoud Jibril, suddenly at the helm in Tripoli. Other observers, by contrast, noted the exceptional circumstances of Jibril's triumph: not only had he achieved fame and acclaim in Libya beforehand, during the country's revolution, by leading the rebel government in Benghazi, he also enjoyed staunch backing from his native Warfalla tribe, one of the most powerful tribal confederations in the country. These factors have been used to suggest that the Libyan outcome is an anomaly--and that a generation of Islamist-led politics still lies ahead in the broader region.

In a region as variegated and complex as the Arab world, it's always perilous to make generalizations about "tides" rising and falling. And yet, even taking into account the many contrasts among post-Arab Spring governments and populations, there is reason to question the conventional wisdom that Islamists will hold power across the region for years. This is not to say that a sweeping tide is simply turning. It is instead to emphasize that prospects for sustained Islamist government in the Arab world were tenuous to begin with--and that recent Islamist miscalculations, combined with new countermeasures by their opponents, make the road ahead even more difficult for these parties than it needed to be.

Morocco is a country now in the midst of a major political transition of its own. Thirteen months ago, King Mohammed VI introduced a new constitution calling for an elected head of government to share power with the monarchy. The Islamist Party of Justice and Development swept elections in November and formed a government in January. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where Islamists had been banned from party politics for decades, in Morocco Islamists have been engaged in party politics for decades--enabled to do so by the kingdom in exchange for forswearing extremist ideals and terrorism. Nonetheless, since taking power, the PJD leadership has proved surprisingly lacking in coherent political and economic policies. The party is yet to advance a substantive plan to fight corruption. Meanwhile, calls to impose conservative Islamist mores on the society have proved unpopular and also are potentially economically hazardous to tourism. If Morocco's current Islamist leadership loses in the next elections, it presumably will be replaced by a comparatively secular leadership.

But Moroccans only can make such a presumption because our country has something its neighbors lack: a king to guarantee the rotation of power. It isn't possible in Morocco, as it may be elsewhere in the region, for Islamists to dissolve or subvert the democratic process.

Over the past twelve years, King Mohammed VI has been nurturing the institutions of civil society that provide fortification and meaning to electoral democracy. The king also maintains control of the army as well as the status of ranking religious authority--so that neither the pulpit nor guerrilla warfare can be used to stymie the popular will. By dint of his popularity with the population and the monarchy's three-hundred-year pedigree, the king enjoys a mandate to maintain these authorities and play this safeguard role for years to come.

Less Stable Neighbors

Morocco's stable monarchy contrasts sharply with the situation in the former military republics of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. In these countries--and, for that matter, in Syria, Algeria and Yemen--civil-society institutions were systematically mowed down by the ruler. And while in Egypt, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi claims to be playing a similar role of "safeguard" in checking the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood, he does not enjoy the legitimacy or the credibility of Morocco's monarch--whatever his intentions may be.

Islamists face an uphill battle in the former military republics for numerous other reasons. In Tunisia, the ruling Islamist Ennahda party has learned that the unelected "deep state"--the bureaucracy, the security sector and so on--is deeply resistant to any efforts to penetrate or change its institutional culture. Ennahda's newly appointed mid-level functionaries have been facing suspicion, discrimination and isolation in the workplace and have described themselves as feeling "embattled" even though the upper echelons of government support them. Meanwhile, Ennahda's ruling parliamentary bloc has proved wobbly. One of its two "troika" coalition partners splintered earlier this summer, in part over ideological differences. Nor were Ennahda's prospects in the forthcoming autumn elections ever strong to begin with. Tunisian political analysts generally agree that the UGTT--the country's largest labor union--enjoys more grassroots support as a movement than Ennahda. The UGTT declined to field a candidate in last year's elections. By consequence, its constituents formed dozens of parties of their own. The "union vote" was divided among more than one hundred newly minted parties. Should the UGTT field its own candidate this fall, he or she would have a strong chance of winning.

Presented by

Ahmed Charai, publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur and the French edition of Foreign Policy magazine, is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.

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