Ennahda, the moderately Islamic party, won the first free election held last month in Tunisia, scoring some 40 per cent of all votes. It will lead the first freely-elected coalition government since the Arab Spring started.
...we have had a penchant for missing the enormous diversity that characterises the Muslim world and the Arab countries- Simon Busuttil
Shock, horror! How do we deal with an Islamic government?
Whether we like it or not, it is more than likely that Islamic parties will emerge as the largest political groups in those Arab countries where the recent uprisings deposed the old regimes and ushered in a new political era that will, hopefully, lead to democracy.
Now that the furore of the revolution is over, the real work begins. And building democracy also means having free elections and letting the people decide whomsoever they want to govern them. In Tunisia there is no doubt that the elections were free and fair. So what do we do if we do not like the result?
The EU and its member states are used to getting on with authoritarian regimes in Arab countries and it turned out that these regimes were repressive war-machines when the people cried out for freedom.
These so-called “secular” authoritarian regimes that have been removed from power in the Arab Spring used to frighten us in the West that if they lose power the “Islamists” would fill in the power vacuum and that would be catastrophic.
In Algeria, in 1991, it was this distorted view of reality that led France to step in and encourage the FLN government in Algiers to cancel the elections won by the Islamic Salvation Front. This led to a civil war that claimed an estimated 250,000 lives. Now that was a real catastrophe.
And before Saddam Hussein madly decided to invade Kuwait, many countries, including ours, were prepared to do business with him. The same can be said of Muammar Gaddafi, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and even Yasser Assad.
And take the case of Hamas. In 2006, in a very synchronised chorus, the US and the EU had encouraged Palestinian reform and free elections. But the first and most free election ever organised in the Arab world to elect the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 gave a majority to Hamas. Because they did not like this result, the West boycotted and threatened the newly-elected government.
Do we really want to walk down that path again? We should not and we must learn how to deal with Arab governments run by Islamic parties. It is not all negative. Take Turkey.
The moderately Islamic, Justice and Development Party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was first elected in 2002 and has since been re-elected twice.
Not because it has run a dictatorship but because it has run the country relatively well. It has carried out many reforms, maintained Turkey within Nato and pushed hard for EU membership.
Indeed, for Arab states in transition, Turkey is a model to emulate and in the West we ought to recognise this.
Why are Arab people opting for Islamic movements? Simple. It’s because for many years they continued to oppose their tyrannical governments despite being outlawed. And they were the only ones people in the Arab world could turn to for change.
Educated, unemployed intellectuals found refuge in them. Doctors joined their ranks and provided health services to the poor. They also spoke out against corruption and arbitrary rule. And throughout they encouraged ordinary people never to lose hope and to struggle on.
So what to do? Well, Islamic parties seem to enjoy broad support among their respective electorates and, therefore, they enjoy the legitimacy that any political elite in power aspires to.
So as long as they play the democratic game, we should deal with them. They may actually not be worse than the Husseins, Gaddafis, Mubaraks and Ben Alis of this world.
For many years, Islamic movements have probably been misunderstood, often lumped together in the West as fundamentalists. But, then, in the West we have had a penchant for missing the enormous diversity that characterises the Muslim world and the Arab countries.
For just as there are extreme and moderate Europeans and Americans, there are also extreme and moderate Arabs and Muslims.
So Europe and the US must also not muddle thoughtlessly into a blind alley by first encouraging democracy and then stifling it if they do not like the result.
We must tread carefully. And after getting it so wrong with Col Gaddafi, Mr Ben Ali and Mr Mubarak, we owe it to the Arab people to embrace a more principled approach.
Dr Busuttil is a Nationalist member of the European Parliament.
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