How to hijack the Arab Spring

How to hijack the Arab Spring

Since the initial months of the Arab Spring, some commentators have expressed fears that these democratic chain revolutions might be “hijacked” by undemocratic forces. The “hijackers” they refer to are, as you can probably guess, the Islamist parties and groups who, these commentators argue, will usurp political power in order to impose their rigid ideologies.

Now, I would agree with these commentators if government posts in Tunisia or Egypt had been stormed by armed jihadists, imposing their will at gunpoint. Actually, however, free and fair elections occurred in both places. Islamist parties, like all others, entered the democratic competition on equal terms, and they simply saw better ballot returns. How in the world could this be described as hijacking?

In fact, in the recent history of the Middle East, those who have hijacked political power using brute force have often been secularists. In Turkey, for example, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his followers never won popular elections, rather they reigned through single-party dictatorships or military coups. Similarly, In Tunisia and Egypt, the governments were hijacked by secular dictators such as Habib Bourghiba and Gamal Abdel Nasser and their successors. In Algeria, when the Islamist FIS party won a general election in 1991, it was the secularist military, backed by France, which launched a coup and hijacked the system.

Why then, in the Western media, is the word “hijack” continually used to describe elections won by Islamists, and sometimes even the word “save” for coups launched by secularists? The answer is simple: In the West, Islamists are generally not considered to be legitimate political actors, whereas secularists are.

The reason for this double standard is concern that Islamists will come to power via elections, and then impose a rigid way of life on society, especially on women. I admit that the risk of this is not imaginary; the Salafis, especially, make me feel concerned as well. However, there is nothing to guarantee that the secular regimes will not be similarly authoritarian. On the contrary, they have proven that they can be as tyrannical as the Salafis. In both Turkey and Tunisia, secularist regimes have imposed a particular dress code on women, not allowing the wearing of the veil, which is as restrictive as forcing women to wear the veil.

Therefore, the Western double standard toward Islamists and secularists seems to me to stem more from cultural biases than from a principled stance supporting freedom. This long-held bias, which has defined democracy in strictly secularist terms, might have been one of the reasons for the Islamists’ long-time denial of democracy. After all, who would want to accept a political system which, by definition, regards one’s politics as less than legitimate? This does not mean that the authoritarian mindset that many Islamists do have should not be a matter for concern. But this concern should be dealt with using a more sober and fair assessment than that which consistently defines Islamist parties’ legitimate election victories as “hijackings.”