As the Arab Spring morphs into a hot Arab summer, activists around the region are debating whether Islamist parties and democracy can mix.
Given the triumph of religious parties in parliamentary elections in Tunisia and Egypt, and given the lead role taken by Islamists in Libya, Yemen and in the Syrian opposition, Arab human rights activists have become increasingly nervous that their revolution will be hijacked.
Nowhere is that debate more intense than in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate is one of two finalists in presidential elections set for June 15-16. The Brotherhood already won 47 percent of the parliamentary seats in November; its success stems from its tight organization and loyal core of supporters.
Yet it is far too soon to assume that the new Arab politics are destined to be shaped only by religious parties. Already, in the year since the Arab revolts began, the push-back to religious domination of politics has begun.
At the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, the tensions between religion and politics were a hot topic.
One revealing session featured the leader of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, Rashid Ghannouchi. He described why after his party’s victory, it chose not to seek revision of Article I of Tunisia’s current constitution – a change that would have made Muslim Shariah law the source of the country’s legal code.
Ennahda decided to accept the Article I language stating that Tunisia’s religion is Islam. Its leaders recognized that many Tunisians differ with Ennahda over referring to Shariah and fear its misuse. So the party opted for consensus. Instead of pushing for Islamization, it agreed to implement Islamic values by developing a modern state.
What Ghannouchi grasps is this: Arab populations may be traditionally religious, but their prime concerns are honest governance, more jobs and a better standard of living – not Shariah.
Tunisia has a more European orientation and a better educated population than Egypt. Neila Charchour Hachicha, a co-founder of Tunisia’s secular Afek Tounes party, told me in Doha, “Ennahda is completely different from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Ennahda understands republican values.”
Yet even if Tunisia is unique, Ennahda provides an Arab model of Islamist openness for others in the region.
In Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood’s plunge into electoral politics, after decades spent underground, has exposed it to the glare of public scrutiny and criticism.
The Brotherhood faces intense skepticism from distinguished Egyptian liberals such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a courageous fighter for democracy who spent two years in prison under Hosni Mubarak’s regime. He told me its closed and hierarchical organization, which imposes strict loyalty to its leader, is not compatible with the freedoms that are so essential to the revolution.
In working-class neighborhoods, former Brotherhood supporters told me they were upset that the organization had broken its pledge not to run a candidate for president. In the coming days, the Brotherhood will have to convince a large segment of Egyptians that electing Mohammed Morsi president will not enshrine a new religious dictatorship.
Arabs who made the revolution are far more aware of the risks posed by Islamist parties than were the naive revolutionaries who ushered Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini into power in Iran in 1979. Even among the devout, there is an understanding that unchecked pursuit of power can corrupt religion. There is public resistance to efforts by any party to monopolize power.
It’s doubtful the Muslim Brotherhood can reform itself, but Egyptians will push back if it doesn’t.