With the first-year anniversary of the Arab Spring, the sad reality is now crystal clear to all but the self-deluded: political Islam has triumphed everywhere. The early Arab Spring narrative– that the ballot box would drain the poison of authoritarianism, corruption and repression from the Arab world and in their place usher in Western-style freedoms and pluralism–has been proved hopelessly naive. Liberals lost the battle for the Arab Spring to the Islamists not because the Middle East is swarming with bearded fanatics. Rather, while the liberals were squabbling among themselves, organizing boycotts and throwing stones at soldiers, the hardcore Islamists focused on what would bring them to power: gaining a majority, or at least a plurality, from within the minority who would vote.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the two countries that have held post-revolutionary elections, Islamist parties decimated the liberals. The same was true in Morocco’s parliamentary elections, held on the back of much-trumpeted reforms. In Libya, Islamist militias rule the streets of Tripoli, and the Al-Qaeda flag flies over the main courthouse of Benghazi. In Yemen and Syria, still mired in violent upheaval, the Islamists, funded and guided by the Wahhabi monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are waiting patiently in the wings. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, the region’s most repressive Islamist theocracy, has not only emerged relatively unscathed, but in the process has actually been strengthened by the Arab Spring. Secular leaders throughout the region have been replaced, or are now threatened, by Islamist groups bankrolled by the Wahhabis.
The Islamists speak a simple language derived from their own cultures that significant sections of their populations relate to and easily understand. Islamist groups are associated with vast charitable networks and personal responsibility. In turn, the Islamists understood that in elections winning a majority of votes from those who cast a ballot often does not mean having to gain the support of the total population. In Tunisia, only 40 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot: 80 percent of the 50 percent who had registered. The country’s Islamist Ennahda party won a plurality by getting 43 percent of the votes cast, so they formed a government despite the fact that more than 80 percent of Tunisians did not vote for them. In Egypt, only 52 percent of all eligible voters cast a ballot in the first round. The Islamist parties won 65 percent, again representing the support of only roughly a quarter of all adult Egyptians. In Morocco, a 45.4 percent turnout allowed the Islamists to win a plurality. As in Tunisia, Morocco’s prime minister will be from an Islamist party that has an electoral support base of between 15 and 20 percent.
The truth is that the liberals were deluding themselves from the start when they sought in the West a solution to their home-grown problems. Their agenda, too, was ultimately reactionary, founded on an idea of what their countries should have been had they been somewhere else entirely. Were they not aware that the Western democracies they took as their role model had taken centuries to grow out of the gradual, painful and bloody retrenchment of religion on a rich soil of wars, ethnic cleansing, genocide and brutal experiments in political utopianism? The ongoing global financial crisis should tell them just what in the end those Western democracies relied on: blind consumerism driven by fragile financial fictions and a black hole of derivatives and debt invented and exploited by a nexus of multinationals in cahoots with a global political elite increasingly unaccountable to the masses.
Just as Western democracies were crumbling, young Arab liberals were taking to the streets hoping to make it all happen again, to perfection, in 24 hours. That was the great irony of the Arab Spring. Its tragedy is that the Islamists, for whom Western-style elections are stepping stones to the eventual imposition of Islamic law, knew how to manipulate the democratic process far better than did their liberal rivals.
John R. Bradley is a widely published British correspondent. Based in the Middle East for more than a decade and fluent in Arabic, he is the author of After the Arab Spring and three previous books on the region: Saudi Arabia Exposed, a Foreign Affairs bestseller; the critically acclaimed Inside Egypt; and Behind the Veil of Vice.