The Al-Nahda party won the Constituent Assembly elections in Tunisia, bringing the entire world to the edge of its seat. This is because there are fears in many circles towards political Islamist movements, and concern with regards to the final outcome of the “Arab Spring”, which is beset by the winds of politics. What is now being said about Tunisia's first steps down the road of democracy will be reiterated more strongly when the parliamentary elections in Egypt begin. Some people believe that what was named the “Arab Spring” has surrendered, and will surrender, the countries where revolutions and uprisings took place, into the hands of political Islamist movements, who are intensifying their [political] activity and presence in order to place themselves at the heart of the [political] scene, after being persecuted and banned [under the previous regimes].
The problem is not with the Arab Spring, and those who claim this are suggesting that tyranny is the safer choice and the sole guarantor of stability. The revolutions and uprisings did not break out because the people wanted to bring the Muslim Brotherhood or any other political Islamist movement to power, but rather because they had enough of corruption and dictatorship and wanted real solutions to their troubles. The problem facing the Arab Spring countries is that they have inherited the legacy of autocratic regimes which left behind deformed political conditions. Such conditions are hard to resolve, and require drastic changes and brand new constitutional foundations in order to launch a democratic process within a short and difficult transitional period, particularly in light of the public’s high hopes and their urgent desire for solutions.
Regimes used the scarecrow of Islamist movements to frighten people against change. Now the same scarecrow is being used to frighten people against democracy. Those regimes fought political Islamist movements in the same manner as they fought other political parties and forces, with the exception of those that made peace with the [ruling] regimes and placed themselves under the regime’s banner. The major difference is that political Islamist movements acclimatized themselves to this, and carried on operating under the cloak of missionary and philanthropic work. They also used mosques, university campuses, and trade unions to attract and mobilize support. These movements also did not forget to become involved in business and commercial activities in order to ensure their own survival – and that of their cadres – as well as in order to allow them to operate on the scene. Therefore they established companies and backed businessmen from amongst their supporters. In contrast, we find that a lot of political parties and forces that could be loosely classified as liberal movement failed to organize themselves and were unable to maintain an active presence on the popular level. This led, in many cases, to these [liberal] parties and groups ending up as exclusive or elite political clubs putting forward a political discourse that fails to reach the masses. Of course there were some exceptions with regards to [political] movements and parties that exerted strenuous effort in order to continue communicating and interacting with their cadres and bases even though they lacked the financial capabilities of the Islamist movements who benefited from the Muslim Brotherhood’s umbrella of cooperation with overseas movements.
The Arab Spring may have opened the door for Islamist movements; however it has also placed them under the microscope and put them to the test. These Islamist movements now need to alleviate the fears of many people who do not trust that they believe in democracy or accept the peaceful and democratic transfer of power. Many people believe that these political Islamist groups will exploit this environment of freedom and democracy to subvert both of these principles, waiting for the opportunity to come to power, when they will monopolize the rule and establish autocratic regimes of their own which will be more ferocious and brutal than the military and partisan despotic regimes that kept a tight rein on power in our region for long years. The experience of the Islamists in Sudan is still fresh in our memory as a testament to all the fears that surround such movements. The Sudanese Islamists entered parliament via democratic elections, however their only goal was to monopolize power, and so they turned against democracy, seizing power by tanks, and forming a government to implement their programs and political project. However as soon as they transformed from an opposition party to a ruling regime, they met with total failure; this was a failure that was witnessed by other Islamists in the region who initially backed them like leader of the Tunisian al-Nahda party, Rashid Ghannouchi, who in a recent press interview about the failure of the Sudanese experience, said “this project turned into suppressive authoritarian rule, and a large section of its figures became statesman in an authoritarian regime, jostling for their own personal interests with regards to commercial and business interests, senior posts, and financial interests, doing their best to monopolize interests and posts.”
Did those associated with political Islamist movements learn their lesson and start searching for a new model, particularly as they now say claim that their political model is closer to that of the Turkish political model? Or is this mere political maneuvering and in reality are they simply waiting for an opportunity to take power, whereupon they will follow in the footsteps of their "brothers" in Sudan or their allies in Iran?
It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to answer this question, but there are indications that some of these movements have begun to comprehend that not accepting the peaceful and democratic transfer of power will mean that they will remain in the political wilderness. They have begun to realize that attempting to monopolize power would mean risking political isolation or fragmentation amidst power struggles and failure to implement their political platform. However these movements need more than just statements in order to reassure those who are suspicious about their intentions, and there are many! They should accept a constitution codifying the concept of a civil democratic state; a constitution consolidating the principles of political pluralism, the sovereignty of law, and the principle of citizenship and personal liberties. The alternative to this would be the continuance of fear and controversy which impede democratization and puts an end to the Arab Spring.
The Tunisian electorate, who set a record with regards to their turnout at the polls, may have sent a message to all parties concerned. They did not empower anyone to single-handedly make decisions during the constituent stage which shall witness the drafting of a new constitution, the shaping of a post-revolution republic, and the holding of parliamentary and presidential elections. The election results gave the al-Nahda party a majority, but not an overwhelming one, and this was despite the speech in which the party attempted to reassure the people and reaffirm its moderation to the extent of pledging not to ban bikini’s from Tunisia’s beaches.
It is too early to speculate about whether or not political Islamist movements will win a parliamentary majority guaranteeing them single-party rule. However, it is obvious they will be a major player in the political equation and will remain, at the same time, under scrutiny until people are reassured that should they vote for them, they will not be replacing one autocratic regime with another.