10-28-2011By Neil Hicks
International Policy Advisor
When asked about Tunisia’s recent elections, Egyptian democracy and human rights activist Basem Fathy says that he is “happy and jealous” for what the Tunisians have achieved. It would be foolhardy to try to make too many predictions about the outcomes of Egypt’s forthcoming parliamentary elections. Coalitions and electoral lists are shifting as November 28, the first day of the protracted election period, draws near. Much may change in the political landscape in the next few weeks. However, the results of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly election provide the first indication of what post Arab Spring voters will actually do if given the chance to vote in a reasonably free and fair election.
The headline from the Tunisian vote is that the Islamist En-Nahda (Renaissance) Party emerged as the clear winner with 41% of the vote giving it 90 seats in the 217 seat assembly.
It would be a mistake to draw too close a parallel between En-Nahda’s strong performance and the likely showing of the Muslim Brotherhood backed Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt. Unlike the Brotherhood, which is a religious movement that has entered politics, En-Nahda is a modern political party that draws its inspiration from religion. This is an important distinction: some in the Brotherhood question whether participation in the political process is helpful to its primary mission of da’wa (spreading the faith), and its secretive modes of operation lead outsiders to be suspicious of its motives: does it have a real commitment to the democratic political process or is it just seeking to exploit the process to impose an authoritarian Islamic state?
En-Nahda seems to have benefited in the recent poll from its history as a steadfast opponent of the Ben-Ali dictatorship. Its leader, Sheikh Rached al-Ghannouchi has spent decades in exile, its candidate for Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali served over 15 years in Ben Ali’s jails as a political prisoner, together with hundreds of other En-Nahda supporters. In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood has a more clouded history of co-existence with Egypt’s repressive rulers. While always banned, it was also tolerated by the authorities. While there have been periods of harsh repression of the Brotherhood under Mubarak and his predecessors, there were also periods when it seemed to reach a mutually beneficial accommodation with the state authorities. Many liberal and secular Egyptians distrust the Brotherhood more because of its history of political opportunism than as a possible agent of religious extremism. In contrast, En-Nahda, while distrusted for the extremist hidden agenda it may have, is more widely admired for its political courage and as a major victim of ruthless state repression.
In short, the newly formed Freedom and Justice Party is unlikely to do as well as En-Nahda at the polls. It is a much more unknown quantity than En-Nahda; faces more competition from other Islamist parties, including modernist, reformed Islamist parties that are closer ideologically to the En-Nahda model – like the al-Wasat (Center) Party; and lacks the oppositional credibility enjoyed by En-Nahda.
Another interesting result from the Tunisian poll is that secular liberal and leftist parties that did not base their campaigns on stoking public fear of the Islamist threat presented by En-Nahda fared better than those that did. The Congress for the Republic (CPR), led by prominent human rights activist and long-term political exile, Moncef Marzouki, has the second largest number of seats with 30 and the center-leftist Et-Takatol, Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties came in third with 21. En-Nahda is likely to seek a coalition in the assembly with these two parties in order to have a broad based majority.
In contrast, the secular center right Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), which ran as the guardian of Tunisian secularism and as an opponent of En-Nahda, came in fifth with just 17 seats.
Liberals and secularists in Egypt may take a lesson from these results and seek to run positive campaigns on their own programs, rather than attacking the Islamist bogeyman. In religious societies like Tunisia and Egypt, appearing to run against religion is a certain loser, and making distinctions between political Islam and Islam itself is probably hard to do in the heat of a political campaign.
Three elements from Tunisia’s election have encouraged Egyptian democrats: first, the electoral process was well organized and largely free and fair, providing a credible result – a model that Egypt will do well to emulate; second, no party emerged with an overall majority – En-Nahda, the victor, will have to negotiate with liberals and secularists as it moves forward with Tunisia’s transition process; and third, the military and security establishment is unlikely to challenge the result, meaning that Tunisia has taken a step forward in its peaceful democratic transition.
In January, Tunisians deposed their dictator through mass protests and provided the spark that ignited a region- wide conflagration that is still raging. Nine months later, it is leading the way in institutionalizing democratic progress. Many will be hoping that this latest version of the Tunisian model will also enjoy such region wide imitation.