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Ozgercin: Arab Spring may still yield fruit

Egyptian protesters shout anti-military ruling council slogans during

Egyptian protesters shout anti-military ruling council slogans during a protest at Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt. Several thousand Egyptians rallied in Cairo's central Tahrir Square Friday to denounce violence against protesters, especially outraged by images of women protesters dragged by their hair, beaten and kicked by troops. (Dec. 23, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

Kevin Vedat Ozgercin is an assistant professor in the Politics, Economics and Law Department at SUNY College at Old Westbury.

 

The 2011 Arab Spring has swept a wave of democratic revolution across North Africa and the broader Middle East. Tunisia and Egypt, which incited revolutions elsewhere, recently held elections. In both, Islamist parties were the winners: Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt.

Elections in post-Gadhafi Libya may well yield similar results, and if Bashar al-Assad's regime falls, Syrian Islamists, too, may gain ground.

What the Arab Spring will bring in 2012 remains to be seen. Yet one trend is clear: parties inspired by Islam have benefitted the most from the Arab Spring, unsurprising because they are the most organized political factions in these countries.

For some pessimists, including Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this trend is a nightmare. For them, Islam and democracy are incompatible -- once Islamic parties gain power through elections, they contend, they will create dictatorships worse than the ones that were toppled.

But that's the least of their problems. What really worries the pessimists is that post-revolutionary Arab states will be more anti-Western and anti-Israeli. Far more appealing is an outcome that would leave secular dictators like Hosni Mubarak in control, maintaining regional balances of power and the pre-Arab-Spring status quo.

Arguably, the pessimists are wrong. First, putting all their hopes in dictators is unscrupulous and unrealistic. The social-movement genie is out of the bottle, and pushing it back is neither noble nor realistic.

Second, the Islamists are more nuanced than one imagines. Tunisia's Ennahda is the most liberal-minded Arab Islamic movement. Its mentor, Rached al-Ghannouchi, has long reconciled Islam and democracy. He emphasizes the "principles and intentions of Shariah law," rather than its "literal injunctions" -- a big difference. His ideas have been instrumental in the emergence of the Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP). Irrespective of Turkish hard-line secularists' fear of AKP, Turkey is a model of Islamic democracy, a model that Tunisia's Ennahda now emulates.

Egypt, however, is more troubling. The Muslim Brotherhood's electoral success this month is not surprising, but the success of the ultraconservative Salafi Al-Nour party is. Combined in parliament, they can transform the country.

In the coming months, the Muslim Brotherhood will choose to ally itself either with Al-Nour or Egypt's more secular forces -- liberals, Coptic Christians or leftists -- to form a new Egyptian government. If the Muslim Brotherhood joins forces with the secular parties, that will make Mubarak's ousting less dramatic. If it chooses the rigid attitudes of Al-Nour, however, Egypt could well take a step backward.

Still, the West should not obsess over the Muslim Brotherhood. This is its leaders' chance to test the group's utopian vision -- "Islam is the solution" -- and be forced to make pragmatic concessions.

The rise of Islamic parties in the wake of democratic revolutions will not necessarily lead to radicalized politics. Tunisia has already offered cause for optimism. While more complicated, Egyptian politics may well create incentives for its Islamic parties to err on the side of moderation and compromise, much as Turkey's AKP.

In 2012, the Arab Spring will surely bring the continued success of Islamic parties at North African and broader Middle Eastern ballot boxes. While the Arab Street may differ with Americans' attitudes on issues like marriage, divorce and homosexuality, it eschews authoritarianism and craves democracy.

Such a prospect won't satisfy the pessimists. For the rest of us, who are willing to accept a realistic view of politics, the new order will present challenges. But they need not be regarded as frightening and might even offer a glimmer of hope.

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