Are Islamist politicians driving an unstoppable political steamroller across the new Arab landscape? For a while, it looked as if Islamist parties would flatten all opponents, winning every single election in post-revolutionary Arab countries. Suddenly, however, the Islamist political machine has found some democratic sand jamming up its gears.
Believe it or not, the Islamist bloc suffered a lacerating defeat in Libya’s first free elections in more than half a century. Islamist politicians are gasping in disbelief.
The political process across the region is nothing if not confusing. The rules change at every step, and it’s not clear what duties are conferred upon election winners, since there is no constitution to spell out the role of those elected.
Still, a few things are clear. First, Islamist parties, the electoral arms of the Muslim Brotherhood branches in every country that has held a vote until now, have emerged victorious. Second, that changed in Libya, where the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood-backed bloc won by a landslide.
The winner was the Alliance of National Forces, headed by former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, a coalition of more than 40 smaller parties, including some with strong liberal and democratic traits.
Jibril has rejected characterizations of the ANF as “secular” and “liberal.” But the anguish of Islamists is enough to show the gap between their worldview and the ANF’s.
Islamist leaders complain that Jibril tricked voters by claiming he also stood by Muslim principles. Indeed, Jibril pulled off an Arab version of Jujitsu, using the strength of religious belief as his own, saying, “Islam, this great religion, cannot be used for political purposes.” He says his coalition is not secular, and adheres to Sharia law as one of its main principles. However vague, it is the most pro-secular stance of any victorious party.
Jibril’s win is plainly reason for celebration among Arab liberals and in Western democracies.
Beyond that, there is little we know.
The Libyan election chose just 80 out of 200 seats in the country’s new National Congress. The other 120 will be chosen in a vote for individuals rather than parties. It’s unclear how those individuals will align politically once elected. The assembly was supposed to write a new constitution. Then it was supposed to choose a committee to write it. But now the National Transitional Council says there will be a new election to choose the constitutional assembly.
The rules are constantly changing and the challenges are many. Like the rest of the region, Libya needs to rebuild from scratch. It has few institutions after decades of political repression. It also has deep regional and tribal divisions. Some want to split up the country. The next government will have to find a way to disarm militias and build national unity.
At least the country has a lot of oil to help lubricate the path to reconstruction and reconciliation.
Citizens in the rest of the Arab world will be keeping an eye on Libya, that sparsely-populated North African country, where Islamist parties suffered their first defeat at the hand of voters. In fact, that defeat may have come not only because the ANF campaigned smartly, but also because Libyan voters saw what had happened in other places where Islamists have swept at the polls.
In Tunisia, hardline Islamists have grown increasingly assertive, trying to pressure more moderate Islamists to harden their stance.
And much attention is rightly placed on Egypt, where Islamists have repeatedly broken their promises after winning elections.
Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi, former head of the world’s original Muslim Brotherhood, is leading a delicate and potentially explosive balancing act between the military, the elected powers and the courts. He openly defied a court order dissolving the Islamist-controlled parliament, and then took a step back. Tensions are high.
We don’t know what role Sharia, Islamic law, will have in the countries where Islamists have won power. And we don’t know how the losers will fare, how well women and minorities will be represented and protected in the new governments and how resilient the democratic process will be if either side overplays its hand.
With so much at stake and so many questions still unanswered, Arabs throughout the region are closely following what happens throughout the territorial span of the uprisings, in search of hints about what the future will bring.
The latest election cleared up at least one of the questions: Is it possible to stop the Islamist steamroller at the polls? The answer in Libya was an emphatic Yes.