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On Point

From Arab Spring to Tunisian Fall -- Islamists Enter the School of Democracy


by Austin Bay
October 25, 2011

The people of Tunisia, Arab Spring 2011's first revolutionaries, have earned their chance to struggle with one of the 21st century's most essential political, social and cultural questions: Will democracy moderate political Islamists, or will political Islamists undermine democracy?

Note I wrote "struggle," not "answer." The Tunisian people have embarked on a murky process that will take years (perhaps decades) to conclude. Exaggerated optimism as to the outcome is as foolish as exaggerated pessimism, though I am certain the threats of militant violence and sleazy, destructive corruption will haunt every passing second. Violence and corruption haunt every revolution.

The Tunisians' struggle began with confronting then toppling dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. The revolutionaries demanded jobs, an end to corruption and an end to secret police oppression. When the army refused to back Ben Ali's attempts to suppress the revolt, he fled -- and left a power vacuum.

The revolutionaries promised to hold elections, and this past Sunday they fulfilled that promise. The vote was fair, but foremost it was peaceful. Ninety percent of the registered voters went to the polls, with enthusiasm.

And the Islamist Ennahda Party emerged with an impressive victory.

One need look no further than Iran and its 1979 revolution to see what happens when militant Islamists win a free and honest ballot. Iran still conducts elections; article six in its constitution mandates them. Article two, however, states that God has "exclusive sovereignty and the right to legislate." The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini used that article to impose a clerical dictatorship, one that would ensure a spiritual and political utopia.

The empirical result? Thirty-two years later, Iran's Islamic revolution is a clerical dystopia, a miserable and corrupt failure. Its elections are shams. Its robed dictators confront modernizing revolutionaries. On our digitally connected planet, the ayatollahs cannot hide the obvious: Sectarian oppression kills economic creativity and seeds future violence.

Turkey's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) provides a different model of governance. The AKP, which has dominated Turkish politics since 2002, adamantly claims it supports secular democracy. But before his party won a national election, the AKP's senior leader, Turkey's current prime minister, Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, once opined that "democracy is like a train. We shall get out when we arrive at the station we want."

Little wonder Turkish secularists argue that Erdogan intends to subvert Turkish democracy. The counter-argument is that democratic success has changed (or is changing) Erdogan and his Islamists; "tamed" them to paraphrase one analysis, schooled them to summarize another.

Turkey's political struggle with Islamism isn't over, so the answer remains speculative. Contemporary republican Turkey, the legacy of its polymath founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, demonstrates that a culturally Islamic society can successfully modernize. That is not speculation. Ataturk was a staunch secularist who separated mosque and state.

In mid-September, while visiting the Arab Spring states of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Erdogan urged their citizens to create secular democracies.

"Secularism does not mean that people are secular," Erdogan said. "I am not secular, but I am the prime minister of a secular state."

The productive value of Ataturk's secular democratic structure, in comparison to Iran, is self-evident. Has Arab Spring schooled Erdogan?

Tunisia's revolution certainly involves issues of cultural identity; issues Ennahda addresses. Prragmatic demands for jobs, education, and expanding Tunisia's economy, however, were also driving energies in the revolt.

"Ennahda is far more like Turkey's AKP than Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood," Middle Eastern expert Robin Wright told me the day after the election. "Whoever cobbles together a new government or coalition in Tunisia will have the unenviable task of trying to deliver political and economic gains -- or face being voted out. Tunisians have extraordinary and excessively optimistic expectations. And raw realities have a way of forcing a degree of practicality on any party."

Can Ennahda's Islamists lose an election? As Wright indicated, Tunisians, as their struggle continues, will inevitably confront that question.

Meanwhile, several Ennahda leaders have called for establishing a coalition government with two secular political parties, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol. That could be a hollow gesture, but given Tunisia's economic stagnation, and the threat posed by violent extremists, more likely it is indicative of the pragmatism Wright believes practical democratic governance demands. 

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