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Democracy challenges Islam:

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia


he results of the Tunisian elections were expected: The Islamic Ennahda party received most of the votes, and will get 40% of the seats in the new parliament. More than 80% of those eligible turned out to vote, and their political inclinations were clear. The elections were transparent and free; all parties accepted the results without appealing, and the Islamic party is accepted by all as a legitimate player. All are committed to the democratic rules of the game, and all understand that the future of Tunisia and the Arab Spring depends on the character of the regime to be created when the new constitution is approved.

Israel is quick to warn

Israel’s response was not long in coming. Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned against the election results and noted the strategic significance of the rise of “Islamists” to power. Astonishingly, even in the Arab world there is a minority – from extreme secularists to aging Stalinists – who believe that Arabs “aren’t ready for democracy.” That’s the opinion of Mubarak’s former right-hand man and head of Intelligence, Omar Suleiman, too. They expect Tunisia’s revolutionary progress to fail and the old order to return: the Arabs will be the same Arabs and the sea will be the same sea, as former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said at the end of the nineties.

Those who insist on seeing the glass half empty remind us of past attempts when Arab democracy paved the way for Islamic movements to gain power, and the results were catastrophic. In Algeria, the Islamic party came to power democratically and then tried to impose Islamic law. The result was a civil war with hundreds of thousands of victims. In Sudan the Islamic party tried to enforce Sharia on the Christian inhabitants of the south, leading to bloody civil war and the separation of the south as a new state. The most recent attempt was in the Palestinian Authority, when Hamas saw the majority it won in the parliament as a green light from the nation to continue the “resistance” against Israel’s occupation. The results are well known: a Palestinian civil war, a war against Israel, the geographic disconnection between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and a siege on the Strip which continues to this day.

The rules of the game have changed

If we rely on past experience, we’ll see the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution as nothing but the prelude to death and destruction and a Tunisian civil war. But past experience is misleading. The victories of Islamic movements in the past were the results of elections in which the old ruling party contended against an Islamic opposition. Thus it was in the Palestinian Authority between Fatah and Hamas; thus too in Algeria, between the FLN (National Liberation Front), which had been in power since defeating the French, and the Islamic opposition.

But this time the situation is entirely different. The Arab uprising brought down the corrupt regimes, changing the face of the Arab world completely. The game between a corrupt dictatorship on the one hand and an Islamic opposition on the other came to an end when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight. The Muslim Brotherhood, in its various political guises, reads the map well. It knows that it was elected on the strength of its position as the most consistent opposition to the old regime, and that it must not turn out to be a continuation of Ben Ali under a new name.

More than 80% of those eligible turned out to vote: this political fact is far more significant than the fact of 40% voting for the Islamic party. The nation wants democracy, and for the first time it has claimed for itself the right to determine its own future. The people are sovereign, and they have no intention of allowing the first elections to be the last. The Tunisian revolution was not a passing fancy – it expresses the deep desires of Arab society which longs to join the modern world. This longing found expression in the uprisings which spread like wildfire throughout the Arab countries, brought millions out onto the streets demanding regime change, and brought down dictator after dictator.

The Islamists’ real test

Moreover, the Islamic movement has learned an important lesson from its past failures, and therefore it reiterates that it has no intention of merely using democracy, then throwing it away. It understands that tourism is an important resource in rebuilding Tunisia, and thus it cannot forbid the sale of alcohol, and it knows it must accept the fact that women will wear bikinis on Tunisia’s beautiful beaches. The Islamic movement has already declared it does not intend to change personal status laws which grant women equality, and that it will not demand that women wear veils, unlike Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The role model, of course, is Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt established a new party called “Freedom and Justice,” which ran for elections at the head of a broad coalition including secular parties. The Brotherhood doesn’t want to hold onto power alone, neither in Tunisia nor in Egypt. It doesn’t want to provoke anyone’s ire, either. The movement seeks secular partners to save it from the fundamentalist factions and moderate their extremist tendencies. In particular, it wants to convince the US and the West that it is a suitable partner in the global economy, and that it has no intention of isolating itself like Iran or Syria. It wants capitalism and foreign investment. It also wants to color society in Islamic hues – but the kind of hues the West can swallow.

This is the great test for the Islamic movements, which are reaping the benefits of the uprisings. Will they manage to handle the social and economic problems dogging the Arab world, like unemployment, poverty, housing shortages, and the lack of health and education services, which motivated the revolutions? This is the major issue. Democracy is perhaps a necessary condition for achieving distributive justice, but it is not a sufficient condition. Till now, the Islamists benefited from the people's poverty, and built up a network of charitable organizations operating in areas the regime neglected. But now they must direct a state, not just a charitable organization, and bring about justice, not just charity. They must establish an economy which can cope with the needs of the workers and peasants – this is where they will show their real worth. This too they know, which is why they are seeking secular, bourgeois, capitalist parties to assist them.

Thus elections in the Arab world will bring about an alliance between Islamic and secular capitalists who will try to implement a market economy and nurture a lively, consumerist middle class. And what about the workers? As in the rest of the world, they will be called on to contribute to the national effort, putting aside their own concerns about employment security and fair wages. They will have to accept “flexible labor” to attract foreign investment, and realize that the rich also hold the keys to ideology. Democracy, as we well know, does not ensure social justice, and if the workers don’t organize, they will become the victims of the system instead of its beneficiaries.

Tunisia, and the entire Arab world, face a new era. The Muslim Brotherhood may have gained power, but it is far from certain that it can maintain its position. The Arab revolution granted the people the right to choose their leaders and change them if they don’t meet expectations. Presidents can no longer allot themselves the power of kings and bequeath their palaces to their sons. The revolution has created the conditions for the rise of new parties and democratic trade unions. Therefore it will eventually create an alternative to the Islamic movements, which will have to adjust themselves to a new reality.

Those who fear the Islamic movements don’t really stand behind the revolution nor have faith in the people who brought it about. Those who don’t believe in the people and its right to sovereignty are liable to support the most terrible regimes, such as those collapsing before our eyes."end"

  • Translated by Yonatan Preminger
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