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The New Chicken Littles

I decided to wait a couple weeks just to make sure. So far, so good. Citizens went to the polls in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt. A plurality of voters threw their support behind Islamist parties. I take a look outside. The sky is still intact.

Still, there is no shortage of Chicken Littles. After Islamist parties won three elections in a row, columnists and pundits in the West threw up their hands in horror.

Writing in The Jerusalem Post, Israeli neo-con Barry Rubin compared the Islamists to communists and 2011 to 1917. He expressed in print the fears that so many others keep under wraps for fear of offending liberal pieties. Soon, he wrote, the majority of Muslims in the Middle East “will be governed by radical Islamist regimes that believe in waging jihad on Israel and America, wiping Israel off the map, suppressing Christians, reducing the status of women to even lower than it is now, and in their right as the true interpreters of God’s will to govern as dictators.”

Seems like Barry Rubin is nostalgic for the old days of anti-communist hysteria. A closer look at the election results in these three key North African countries reveals a very different picture of the democratic aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings.

The first election took place in Tunisia in late October. After an extraordinary turnout of more than 90 percent of registered voters, the previously banned Islamist party Ennahda took 41 percent of the total, with the secular Congress for the Republic coming in a distant second at 14 percent and the leftist Ettakatol party in third place. The three parties subsequently formed a coalition government. The leader of the Congress party, Moncef Marzouki, became the interim president, while the leader of the leftist party Mustapha Ben Jaafar became the head of the newly elected Constituent Assembly.

Frankly, the Tunisian Islamists could teach America a thing or two about democracy, and not just because of all the people who endured long lines at the polling stations to vote. For instance, 24 percent of the new legislators are women. That compares to less than 17 percent here in the U.S. Congress.

Then there’s the greater commitment to bipartisanship. “We have declared since before the elections that we would opt for a coalition government even if al-Nahda achieves an absolute majority,” explains the party’s founder Rached Ghannouchi, “because we don’t want the people to perceive that they have moved from a single party dominant in the political life to another single party dominating the political life.”

Finally, there’s the approach to campaigning. As one American with campaign experience writes from Tunisia, Ennahda didn’t win just because Tunisia is 98 percent Muslim: “Ennahda mobilized youth and spoke to the interior of the country where the revolution started, utilized the press, understood and explained the new electoral system, communicated their message/brand, and stood out from all the other parties.”

Still, even on the left there is unease. “In certain sectors it is more like a wave of panic,” writes the distinguished French journalist Jean Daniel about Ennahda’s electoral victory, “while in others it’s a general sense of confusion.” Why? Because “the prospect of a Western-style democracy and complete freedom of religion seems nothing but a fleeting memory.” I’m not sure how Daniel would distinguish between a “Western-style democracy” and what Tunisians are currently constructing, though it would be nice if Tunisia managed to leave out Western-style corruption and influence-peddling. As for the “complete freedom of religion,” I suspect that Daniel is speaking of the French approach of laïcité, which would get limited support in Tunisia and, frankly, in our faith-based United States as well.

The next election to fall to the Islamists was in Morocco at the end of November, when the Justice and Development Party (PJD) picked up nearly one-third of the seats in parliament. The Moroccan king, who instituted political reforms to stave off Arab Spring protests, has chosen PJD leader Abdelilah Benkirane as prime minister. As in Tunisia, the PJD has gone to great lengths to reassure outsiders that it will not turn the country into Saudi Arabia. “I will never be interested in the private life of people,” the popular Benkirane told reporters. “Allah created mankind free. I will never ask if a woman is wearing a short skirt or a long skirt.”

Unlike in Tunisia, however, the PJD has to navigate within a monarchy that is not completely committed to democracy. Of all the parties participating in the election, the PJD seemed most willing to challenge the king and thus attracted support from some secular quarters. Battling corruption, which plagues Morocco’s legal system, is a particular focus of Islamist parties, so the PJD will soon have to prove how hard it will push against the status quo to effect change.

Perhaps the most unsettling news for the new Chicken Littles was the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party with 37 percent of the vote in the first round of the Egyptian parliamentary elections. The more conservative Salafist party picked up 24 percent. But don’t make the common mistake of lumping these two parties together into some menacing Islamist bloc. The two parties have fundamental differences, and the Salafists want little to do with the Brotherhood and its willingness to engage in the necessary compromises of the political sphere.

The Brotherhood has been a bugaboo in the West for a long time, a prejudice I’ve addressed in an earlier World Beat. I’m happy to see that liberals like Nicholas Kristof are beginning to look at the movement with greater acuity. Sitting down for dinner with Islamists in Egypt, a prospect that apparently freaked out some of his readers, the New York Times columnist discovered that they were not bin Ladens in disguise after all. Rather, these Islamist voters looked at the world largely through a justice lens, valuing the social welfare projects and anti-corruption stances of the Brotherhood. “Our fears often reflect our own mental hobgoblins,” Kristof concludes. “For a generation, we were terrified of secular Arab nationalists, like Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled Egypt in the ’60s. The fears of the secularists proved overblown, and I think the same is true of anxieties about Islamic parties in Egypt today.”

It is, of course, important to evaluate these parties on what they produce, not simply what they promise. Fellow New York Timescolumnist Thomas Friedman insists on judging the Islamists by whether they embrace a set of economic reforms that have been largely discredited by the ongoing economic crisis. But the Brotherhood is not wedded to such a flat-world orthodoxy. It is developing its own “renaissance project” to pull Egypt out of the trough into which Mubarak and his cronies dragged it. The project is designed “to capitalize on Singapore’s experience in improving its administration, South Africa’s experience in creating a national dialogue, and Turkey and Malaysia’s experience in encouraging investment, achieving development, and improving its educational system and economy.”

Notice that neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States figures as a model for the Brotherhood. That, in the end, might be the most galling thing to both Friedman and the Salafists. The winning party in Egypt is looking neither at the 7th century of Mohammed nor the 20th century of Margaret Thatcher for inspiration.

I suspect that it’s not so much the foreignness of the Islamists as their underlying similarities that most upset the West. When Salafists cover up mermaid statues at a public fountain in Alexandria, it reminds us of John Ashcroft covering up the partially nude statues in the Justice Department. And the Islamist commitment to social and economic justice, that sounds a lot like…the Occupy movement – a terrifying parallel for Western financial interests.

Sure, the sky might fall. Ennahda, the PJD, and the Brotherhood could defy the logic of political evolution, throw their lot in with the Salafists, and turn the clock back in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco all the way to the 7th century. But this is not a very likely scenario.

Let’s remember the original Chicken Little story. One day, an acorn strikes the head of the fearful protagonist. He sets off to tell the king that the sky is falling. Along the way, he meets up with a range of animals that likewise get caught up in the chick’s apocalyptic vision. The last animal they meet is a fox, who promises to show them a shortcut to the king’s castle. Instead, he leads them into his lair and gobbles them all up.

Who’s the fox in this story of political transformation in the aftermath of the Arab Spring? Take your pick: global warming, economic crisis, nuclear proliferation. The Islamist victories in the recent elections are indeed a shower of acorns, a wake-up call if you will. But let’s not make Chicken Little’s mistake by gazing up at the sky instead of taking a good, hard look at the world around us.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, writes its regular World Beat column, and will be publishing a book on Islamophobia with City Lights Press in 2012.

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John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.

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