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Arab Spring: now begins the education of Islamist politicians

In Tunisia and Egypt, Islamists are being elected into office to take on the daunting policy problems of their neglected societies. But Islamists, too, will be chucked out of office if they can’t deliver the goods. And they know it.

By Graham E. Fuller / May 1, 2012

Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh is welcomed by his supporters April 26 during his arrival in Monofeya, Egypt. Mr. Abolfotoh, a moderate Islamist, is gaining support from the country's most hard-line conservatives. Op-ed contributor Graham E. Fuller says 'the West must allow these [political] processes to unfold unhindered inside each country.'

Khalil Hamra/AP

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Islamist politics in the Middle East cracked wide open with the Arab awakening: Islamists have emerged on top in Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, and Egypt. Western publics, lulled by the sight of iPhones and other social media at work, assumed that the demonstrations, rebellions, and regime changes were all driven by Muslim wannabe Westerners and that Islamist politics were relics of the past.

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But when dictators started to fall, it shouldn’t have been any surprise that Islamists quickly came out on top. This wasn’t a conspiracy. Islamists have paid their dues many times over for decades as the only group with a clear regional identity, a vision, a courage, and a willingness to suffer the harsh responses of dictators.

They spoke out, went to prison, and sometimes died. Brave doesn’t always mean correct, but it means they garnered the respect of the public. Western-style liberals couldn’t really fill up the main square on a good day, although the participation of a new generation of youth with idealism and drive is evidence of an exciting new generation of activists.

Islamists make Westerners nervous, sometimes with good reason. We have seen what the most fanatic and worst of them can do – 9/11, primitive Taliban forces, and backwards views toward women. But Islamists have also been driven by a Muslim nationalist zeal, fueled by hostility to past Western political domination and wars brought to their own lands.

Islamists were in a way lucky for a while. Excluded from the system, they could only deliver Islamist critiques but never had to shoulder the burden of office, the responsibility to make things work.

That has all changed. Islamists are being elected into office and will be assuming the daunting policy problems of their neglected societies. The voting public is excited at the change and will give them a grace period to start improving things. But that period will be limited. Islamists can’t go on winning elections on the basis of pious religious slogans or even anti-Westernism (assuming the West is no longer there with boots on the ground).

Islamists, too, will eventually be chucked out of office if they can’t deliver the goods. And they know it. They will have to make hard policy decisions on complex issues – or they too will soon lose their hard-acquired luster.

In the exhilarating new field of more open Middle Eastern politics, the once oppressed and cornered Islamist spectrum is now opening out, expanding into new space: liberal or conservative, pragmatic or rigid, cautious or bold, skilled or unskilled, politically savvy or not.

We see this spectrum in Tunisia and Egypt today: ultra-conservative Salafis, more moderate Muslim Brothers, a smaller segment of liberal Islamists – all in competition. What’s more, the field is not static. Islamists, now free to play, are evolving rapidly, gaining experience in the face of the hard political and policy decisions ahead of them.

The process has brought some heartening developments. Ultra-orthodox Salafis in Egypt have now surprisingly backed for president the most liberal Islamist candidate in the pack. But should we be surprised? Salafis, too, want to win elections, to back the candidate most likely to win.

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