Why Islamists Are Better Democrats

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for Time

No holding back Cairenes wait for a voting station to open

If the Arab Spring was seeded by a liberal insurrection, the Arab Fall has brought a rich harvest for Political Islam. In election after election, parties that embrace various shades of Islamist ideology have spanked liberal rivals. In Tunisia, the first country to hold elections after toppling a long-standing dictator, the Ennahda party won a plurality in the Oct. 23 vote for an assembly that will write a new constitution. A month later, the Justice and Development Party and its allies won a majority in Morocco's general elections. Now, in perhaps the most important election the Middle East has ever witnessed, Egypt's Islamist parties are poised to dominate the country's first freely elected parliament.

In the first of three rounds of voting, two Islamist groups won a clear majority between them: a coalition led by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) got 37% of the vote, while the al-Nour Party won 24.4%. The Egyptian Block, a coalition of mostly liberal parties, was a distant third, with 13.4%. The FJP is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, a mostly moderate Islamist group; al-Nour represents more-hard-line Salafis. With momentum on their side, the Islamists are expected to do even better in the second and third rounds, scheduled for Dec. 14 and Jan. 3.

Why have the liberals, leaders of the Arab Spring revolution, fared so poorly in elections? In Cairo, as the votes were being counted, I heard a raft of explanations from disheartened liberals. They were almost identical to the ones I'd heard the previous week, in Tunis. The litany goes like this: The liberals only had eight months to prepare for elections, whereas the Brotherhood has 80 years' experience in political organization. The Islamists, thanks to their powerful financial backing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, outspent the liberals. The generals currently ruling Egypt, resentful of the liberals for ousting their old boss Hosni Mubarak, fixed the vote in favor of the Islamists. The Brotherhood and the Salafists used religious propaganda — Vote for us or you're a bad Muslim — to mislead a largely poor, illiterate electorate.

These excuses are all plausible, as far as they go. But they don't go very far. After all, the Salafis had no political organization until 10 months ago, and they still managed to do well. The liberals were hardly penurious: free-spending telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris is a leading member of the Egyptian Block. Even if you buy the notion that the generals — themselves brought up in strict secular tradition — prefer the Islamists to the liberals, international observers found no evidence of systematic ballot fixing.

And to argue that voters were hoodwinked by the Islamists is to suggest that the majority of the electorate are gullible fools. This tells you something about the attitude of liberal politicians toward their constituency. And that in turn may hold the key to why they fared so badly.

The Islamists, it turns out, understand democracy much better than the liberals do. The Ennahda and the FJP were not just better organized, they also campaigned harder and smarter. Anticipating allegations that they would seek to impose an Iranian-style theocracy in North Africa, the Islamists formed alliances with some secular and leftist parties and very early on announced they would not be seeking the presidency in either country. Like smart retail politicians everywhere, they played to their strengths, capitalizing on goodwill generated by years of providing social services — free hospitals and clinics, soup kitchens — in poor neighborhoods. And they used their piety to assure voters that they would provide clean government, no small consideration for a population fed up with decades of corrupt rule. Even the Salafis, who openly pursue an irredentist agenda and seek a return to Islam's earliest days, benefited from the perception that they are scrupulously honest.

Having shown themselves adept at winning elections, will the Islamists now prove to be good democrats? There's reason for hope. Ennahda and FJP leaders have for the most part sounded conciliatory rather than triumphal: they have sought to broaden alliances and bring more liberals into their tents. Critics say this is all a ruse, but Tunisian and Egyptian voters have insured their democracy against ruses by leaving Ennahda and FJP well short of absolute majorities.

Having proved themselves poor campaigners, will the defeated liberals now play by the rules? These require them to play a constructive role in parliament's opposition benches rather than undermine the elections by returning to street protest. They also must prepare for elections expected in 2012 and '13. They still have time to learn to be better democrats — like the Islamists.