A new generation of political Islamists steps forward

Olivier Roy writes: Everywhere, the Muslim Brotherhood is benefiting from a democratization it did not trigger. There is a political vacuum because the liberal vanguard that initiated the Arab Spring did not try, and did not want, to take power. This was a revolution without revolutionaries. Yet the Muslim Brothers are the only organized political force. They are rooted in society, and decades of opposition against authoritarian regimes gave them experience, legitimacy and respect. Their conservative agenda fits a conservative society, which may welcome democracy but did not turn liberal.

Under these circumstances, the ghost of a totalitarian Islamic state is raised, with the specter of imposing sharia and closing the short democratic parenthesis. But such an outcome is unlikely.

The Islamists have, in fact, changed: They are more middle-class “bourgeois,” and they benefited from the liberalization of local economies during the last decades of the 20th century, especially in countries with no oil rent. The Islamists have also drawn lessons from the failure of ideological regimes and from the success of Turkey’s AKP party. They are no longer advocating jihad and understand geostrategic constraints, such as the need to maintain peace, even a cold one, with Israel. Realism is the starting point of political wisdom.

The Islamists have been elected with a clear agenda: stability, good governance and a better economy. If they have been able to reach a larger constituency than the hard-core supporters of sharia, it is precisely because they can combine such a reformist agenda while talking about religion, values, identity and tradition. The Nahda party won the majority of the votes cast at the Tunisian consulate of San Francisco, although Tunisian expatriates in Silicon Valley are not known for their Islamic fundamentalism.

This mix of technocratic modernism and conservative values is their brand, and to turn their back on multipartism and legalism would alienate a large portion of their constituency, at a time when they have no means to confiscate power. They have neither military forces nor oil wealth to bypass the people: They have to negotiate and deliver. Their electorate wants stability and peace, not revolution.

They are stepping into a new political landscape: a democracy, although a fledgling and fragile one. The only way to maintain their legitimacy is through elections. Even if their pristine political culture is not democratic, they are formatted by the democratic landscape, much as the Roman Catholic Church ended up accepting democratic institutions. But it will take time.

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