The perennial question of whether democracy can work in the Middle East isn’t always easy to answer. Generally, it hasn’t worked. But amid civil war in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, authoritarian resurgence in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and economic instability in Jordan, there are at least three cases that challenge the notion that it can’t happen here. Tunisia, which held its first post-revolution municipal elections in May, continues to be a (relative) bright spot. Then there are the more unlikely cases of Iraq as well as Lebanon—probably the world’s most successful failed state. All three share two related features: Largely without controversy, they include Islamist parties in their democratic processes; and, second, they feature some degree of power-sharing.
In Lebanon, these arrangements are deeply flawed, chaotic, and responsible for entrenching sectarianism. Parliamentary seats are still apportioned by religious affiliation. At the same time, as the Carnegie Endowment’s Joseph Bahout has noted: “There are typically no winners and no vanquished emerging from crises in Lebanon … Many Lebanese seem to believe their system is the least bad option compared with neighbors.” The Lebanese writer Michael Young has argued that while each sectarian grouping is illiberal and insular, by interacting, “they tend to cancel each other out, creating spaces that allow individuals to function with relative freedom.”
Iraq, like Lebanon, saw lower turnout in its recent election. But as the Brookings Institution’s Tamara Wittes testified to Congress, both polls offered an important lesson. “If Lebanon and Iraq can pull off free elections,” she wrote, “it’s harder for strongmen in other Arab states to argue that they can’t afford the risk to stability of allowing their own peoples a choice in who governs them.”
The very presence of Islamist parties can be inherently polarizing, particularly when they represent large, powerful, and conservative constituencies. Through successive administrations, the United States has regarded too much Islamist representation—or any Islamist representation—as a risky prospect. Yet it was the George W. Bush administration that, despite its discomfort with Islamism, ironically paved the way for Islamists to take power through democratic elections in Iraq—a first in the Arab world. After its January 2005 elections, Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Shia Islamist Dawa party assumed the prime ministership. Interestingly, Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood members served in various cabinet positions, including as ministers of higher education and planning. In Lebanon, Hezbollah—however much the United States and Saudi Arabia oppose it—has become a fixture of coalition governments. The point here isn’t that these groups are good (Hezbollah is a designated terrorist organization as well as an active participant in the Syrian regime’s mass killing of civilians), but rather that Arab democracy, in practice, often coincides with the normalization of Islamist parties.
Even in Tunisia, where Islamists aren’t yet normalized since the democratic experience is still young, there are similar takeaways. The country’s transition since the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 offers a reminder that democracy can not only survive but produce impressive results—but only if Islamist parties are incorporated into the process. From 2011 to 2014, the Islamist Ennahda-led government and constituent assembly, in partnership with two secular parties, ushered in what the Project on Middle East Democracy called “the most progressive and democratic legal framework for civil society in the Arab World.” These included some of the strongest associational freedoms and human-rights protections in the region. Surprisingly—or perhaps unsurprisingly, depending on your perspective—these gains are in danger of being undermined under the current secular-led government.
Some, like analyst Ibrahim al-Assil, might argue that Tunisia is exceptional because Ennahda is exceptional—an Islamist party that has diluted its Islamism, shed the “Islamist” label, and reconciled itself to a secular state. In my book Islamic Exceptionalism, I argued that these shifts are more the product of an imperative to survive, a fear of repression, and a determined pragmatism than they are the result of some deep ideological epiphany.
In the case of Tunisia, the irony is that Islamists’ willingness to play nice—something that would generally seem quite positive—has contributed to a troubling trend of democratic backsliding on things like police reform, an overly securitized counterterrorism strategy, and the lack of accountability for the crimes and corruption of old regime figures. As the largest party in parliament, Ennahda potentially has considerable power to challenge Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and President Beji Caid Essebsi Essebsi’s priorities. Instead, they have emphasized caution, consensus, and stability, fearing that doing otherwise might summon the old days of polarization and repression. Embracing their role as junior partner in the government, they have, in effect, gained protected status. But this also means that Tunisia is deprived of a cohesive bloc that could serve as an effective lobby for strengthening the democratic transition. The desire for compromise, unchecked, can come at a cost.
These darker undercurrents present real cause for concern. But the bottom line, at least for now, is that the lived practice of democracy can still provide a counterpoint to an authoritarian status quo that often seems unyielding and overwhelming. And in each of these cases, democracy would simply be inconceivable without Islamist participation. That, by itself, should give us pause, particularly at a time when Western democracies appear uninterested or even hostile to either democracy promotion or integrating Islamists, or perhaps even both.
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