No doubt the most difficult task in the months ahead for Western leaders responding to changes in the Arab world will be to stick to their guns on democracy — that is, to accord elected governments and their leaders all the respect due to democratically chosen heads of state. This is because the elected governments will almost invariably be Islamist, hostile to Israel, and suspicious of the United States.
But really, what else could we expect? “Democratic” does not simply equate to pro-Western. If you tell people: “We have oppressed proponents of your historical religion for decades to create dictatorships for the sake of better relations with the West and Israel, and now we want you to choose your own government”, what else would people do than repudiate the pattern of the old dictatorships? And wouldn’t that repudiation more likely take the form of voting for well known and established parties that stood against the dictatorships, rather than for new parties with young faces that stand for such vague things as “secularism and liberalism?”
So let us start from the fact that an Islamist majority was always logically to be expected from free elections in Arab countries, and show no disappointment on that score. The crucial issue regarding the new regimes in Tunisia and Egypt is not that they are Islamist, but how will they act? How will they act toward other non-Islamist parties, and non-Islamic groups in society? How oppressive will they be toward women? How effective will they be on economic policy and science and technology? How will they manage popular hostility toward Israel? These are the issues that will determine the risks and success of these regimes.
So what can we realistically expect? I remain optimistic–for now. Egypt’s leaders, whether military or Islamist, have no interest in a war with Israel. Egypt’s people desperately need jobs and investment, which a war will put at risk. So provided Israel provides some modest concessions or assistance to Palestinians, so that Islamist governments can point to something positive, the Israel/Arab relationship should not shift too harshly.
Regarding domestic affairs, the interesting division to watch will be within the Islamist ranks, between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties. Westerners tend to assume that all Islamist parties will stand together on policy, and that the strong showing of the Salafists will pull all Islamist groups to a more strict and extreme view.
I disagree — that was not the dynamic I observed when I was in Cairo earlier this year. The Muslim Brotherhood leaders, anticipating coming to power, were striving mightily to disassociate themselves from the Salafists. The Brotherhood wanted to present itself as open, democratic, cosmopolitan, ready to work with others on the world stage and to respect human rights within Egypt. They viewed the Salafists as putting all of that at risk, as wanting to drag Egypt back into a pre-modern past and isolate itself.
So my guess is that we will not see a Muslim Brotherhood-Salafist coalition ruling Egypt (or elsewhere). Rather, we will see either either the Brotherhood allying itself with one of the secular parties to burnish its bonafides with the West, and bringing the Salafists into government only to a limited degree. Ideally, for the Brotherhood, the secular parties would balance the Salafists, leaving the Brotherhood to call the shots and guide the country. That would be much preferable for them to simply allying with the Salafists, which would create anxiety and suspicion from the West and risk a massive counter-reaction from secular and military forces within Egypt. The Brotherhood has seen the power of Tahrir square, and they are well aware they cannot ignore or wholly oppose the forces that appeared there. I expect the Ennahda party in Tunisia to take the same, moderate, approach – the better to stay in power and wield it.
So let us be patient and see how things unfold. It is not time to panic about the rise of Islamist parties — yet.