Authoritarian oligarchs have reigned so long in Arab countries that nobody dared to foresee their downfall. They had become reminiscent of Greek demigods with omnipotent souls residing in mortal bodies. Their power was incontestable and their reach too hegemonic to be challenged without running the risk of disgrace or punishment. Many Arab citizens tried to remain inoffensive for decades. Nevertheless, the hardships they had to face in all realms of life and the demonizing treatment they were subjected to turned docile ‘subjects’ into fearless rebels; chants of “irhal, irhal” (which means ‘leave’ in English) resounded in the Arab street, and could no longer be ignored.
After months of peaceful protest, Arab citizens were able to topple despots that had previously considered themselves invincible. Although brutal crackdowns were launched to repress the mass protests, such measures simply had the opposite effect; the protests gained momentum and spread like wildfire through the region.
The youth movement that spearheaded the protests at the onset was politically unaffiliated. Their sphere of influence was the street and the open squares they occupied. Their physical presence in large numbers spoke louder than any slogan. But once the despots were ousted and the vote box secured from fraud, the young activists found themselves sidelined. In a development that few were expecting, Islamist factions that were harshly repressed in the past won a resounding victory in a number of Arab countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. The Islamist parties, formerly excluded and persecuted, acted like a magnet pulling on the votes in the first democratic elections in decades.
So what lies beneath this enthusiasm towards Islamists?
First and foremost, it is noteworthy that the Islamist factions in Arab countries vary greatly in their agenda, their political history and their position in the scale of conservatism. The Muslim Brotherhood for instance, has been known to use violence against the Egyptian government, although its leadership has carried out ideological reviews since then. On the other hand, although the Moroccan Islamist group “Al Adl Wa al Ihsane” was banned by the regime, it has always advocated a peaceful approach with a Sufi flavor. Likewise, the Islamist movement in Tunisia endorsed a non-violent Islam and called for the acceptance of political pluralism and the reconstruction of economic life on more equitable grounds.
The common thread between these groups is their condemnation and opposition to authoritarian regimes, which earned them the wrath of kleptocratic hawks. They were harshly repressed and often victims of illegal arrest, torture and deportation. Yet, they succeeded in building a close-knit and powerful social welfare system that largely benefited underprivileged citizens. Their presence in public universities remained strong, despite the constant harassment they would face.
It is important to remember that Islamist groups in the Arab world were also sidelined and discredited in the mainstream media, and were thus unable to partake fully in the political process. On the other hand, the ethical credentials of political parties were incrementally undermined by corrupt practices, lack of competence and bad governance. As a result, mass discontent has brewed against these parties over recent decades, while the system of governance which is espoused by the Islamists has not yet encountered the constraints of political enterprise. Moroccan voters for instance, displayed a political apathy for several years and were reluctant to cast the ballot for opportunistic candidates. When King Mohammed VI issued constitutional reforms in response to the uprising in 2011, the Moroccan electorate voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Party of Justice and Development (a moderate Islamist party) as a clear snub to the other parties whose delivery had been poor and whose reputation had become questionable. Besides, the PJD deputies had become renowned for their integrity and honesty in assuming political responsibilities. Consequently, voters were drawn more to the Islamist rhetoric in the democratic overture in Morocco.
The Arab Spring provided Islamists with an unprecedented opening as they were freed from the shackles of state repression and emerged more geared than ever to fill the vacuum that had opened up in the political arena. Nonetheless, Islamists are expected to build coalitions with other parties to form future governments, which necessitates a skillful alacrity for compromise in order to live up to the expectations of the masses.
The moral of the story is that common men and women have the potential to reshape politics and rewrite history. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the mostly unaffiliated protesters have emerged as a fifth power along with the four other branches. This new driving force expects drastic measure and palpable change in the near future and no option is off the table.