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Islamists’ Victory in Tunisia a Win for Democracy: Noah Feldman

Illustration by Neil Donnelly; Photo by Patrick Baz, AFP/Getty Images

Illustration by Neil Donnelly; Photo by Patrick Baz, AFP/Getty Images Close


Illustration by Neil Donnelly; Photo by Patrick Baz, AFP/Getty Images

It’s official: The Islamists have won the Arab Spring. And the result was as inevitable as it is promising.

Last week’s elections in Tunisia gave more than 41 percent of the vote -- a solid plurality -- to the Islamic democrats of the Ennahdha party. The only secularist group that actively campaigned against the Islamists in the race for seats in the constituent assembly, the Progressive Democratic Party, got an embarrassing 17 seats in the 217-member assembly.

On the surface, the Islamists’ success looks like a puzzling disappointment for the forces of democracy. After all, the largely peaceful public uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were overwhelmingly secular. The Islamists came late to the game in both places, only expressing their support once the movements looked likely to succeed.

Why didn’t the Tunisian public reward the dynamic young secular activists who got rid of the dictator? Why do almost all observers expect a similar result when Egypt holds its planned elections beginning in November?

Part of the answer lies in organization. In both countries, the Islamists have been an organized force for decades, albeit officially banned. Ennahdha, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere, is a social movement as much as it is a political party, which gave it a substantial leg up when it came to organizing dedicated volunteers to motivate voters. The relatively short period of time between the opening of the democratic process and the elections only increased that structural advantage.

But the deeper explanation has to do with the difference between a popular uprising and a democratic election. Revolutions are made by disaffected elites. Elections -- at least in countries where people care enough to vote -- express the preferences of a much broader public.

Consider who went into the streets in Tunisia. Spontaneous protests in December 2010 following the self-immolation of distraught fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi quickly turned into organized strikes by, among others, the union representing Tunisia’s 8,000 lawyers. At the vanguard of the protests that followed were middle-class, educated young people deeply frustrated by the lack of upward mobility available to them under the conditions of autocracy.

A similar dynamic obtained in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the movement’s leaders sometimes coordinated using iPhone apps - - not the medium of the masses in a country with a per-capita gross domestic product of $2,270. Nevertheless, once these young leaders took the brave step of going to the streets, a good chunk of the middle class supported them. Of course there were some poor people involved as the protests grew, as well as some elites to whom new economic doors were opening. And the general public was sympathetic, at least insofar as it, too, shared the sense that the authoritarian rulers were not delivering adequate economic growth.

Yet at no time were the protests in Tunisia or Egypt mass movements of the disempowered. Reliable estimates suggest that Cairo’s Tahrir Square never had more than 300,000 people in it - - this in a wildly overcrowded and sprawling city of some 17 million.

The point is not to denigrate the brave revolutionaries as unrepresentative. Almost no revolution begins as a mass popular movement -- which is why Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed the theory of the revolutionary vanguard in the first place. What is crucial is to recognize that the first leaders of a revolution are rarely a perfect sample of the broader population that gets behind them.

When a revolution leads to a free election, this disparity between the vanguard and the masses can become immediately clear. Unlike the young secularists, many Tunisians see Islam as a defining feature of their personal and political identities. The public also knows that Islamic democrats such as Ennahdha’s intellectual leader, Rashid Ghannouchi, were almost the only voices of resistance to the regime in the last 20 years. Likewise, in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has been the most important voice of resistance since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom Brotherhood members tried to assassinate.

Islamists are also highly skilled at reaching across economic and social classes to build support. In poor rural areas, the mosque is sometimes the only gathering place, and Islam can be leveraged to provide a simple, time-tested and powerful political message. Where illiteracy prevails, religion can be especially appealing -- another point that was not lost on Marx.

The upshot is that the broad public that didn’t participate directly in the revolutionary moment in the urban centers is far more sympathetic to political Islam than are the elites who got the ball rolling. Given all this, it isn’t surprising that many revolutionary movements have historically tried to avoid democracy after a successful takeover. But here the leaders of the Arab Spring are to be complimented -- and democracy needs to be given its due.

Although secularists in Tunisia and Egypt didn’t want elections to come too quickly, they haven’t been heard arguing that elections are a mistake altogether. That is, the ideology of the Arab Spring actually is democracy. The proof is in the willingness of the leading revolutionaries to be beaten by social forces they don’t fully trust.

The Islamists, too, reflect the ideals of democracy. This phenomenon goes back 20 years to Algeria’s experiment in democracy, when Islamists realized for the first time that the public in an Arabic-speaking country would support them only if they declared that Islam and democracy were compatible. Since then, in a gradual process, more and more political Islamists have become democrats. Ennahdha’s Ghannouchi, exiled in Europe for decades, was a thought leader in the process of the Islamist embrace of equal citizenship and equal rights -- which makes it especially fitting that his party is playing a primary role in Islamist electoral politics.

Combining pragmatism and principle, mainstream political Islam has undergone an extraordinary democratic transformation. And it has done so in the very years when radical jihadism threatened Islamic democrats with condemnation and murder. From the standpoint of the global ideal of democracy, this is a victory of historic proportions.

(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Noah Feldman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at

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