Rabat, Morocco — A little over a year ago, a young fruit vendor in Tunisia poured gasoline on himself, struck a match, and committed suicide. He was protesting thuggish policemen who had confiscated his goods, but his self-immolation helped ignite a series of uprisings across the Arab world in 2011.
One by one, the people of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya toppled their rulers. In Syria, Pres. Bashar al-Assad is struggling to suppress a growing popular revolt, and has even earned the ire of the normally spineless Arab League. In places where secular rulers prevailed for decades, Islamists are part of coalitions now trying to seize the reins of power. How worried should we be that the new political forces might turn out to be even more repressive and dangerous than the ones they replace?
The evidence so far is mixed. In Tunisia, the major Islamist party Ennahda claimed a victory in the October parliamentary polls with 89 seats in the 217-member body. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the ultra-conservative Salafists jointly won about two thirds of the vote in the second round of polling for a parliament that will help draft a new constitution. A ruling-party leader in Algeria says Islamists could take up to 40 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections scheduled for next May. When an Islamist party was poised to win elections in 1991 in Algeria, there was a military coup.
The military in all of these countries is likely to react differently to the rise of the Islamists. The consensus is that their rise represents a reaction against corrupt, autocratic government, and they should be given a share of power, which will force them to confront the essential democratic need for compromise.
Just this week, the deputy chief of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt told a rally in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh that his party will not tighten rules on the consumption of alcohol or take other steps to curb its sale in hotels and stores. “No citizen who makes a living from this field should be concerned,” Essam el-Erian told voters as the country prepares for a third round of elections in January. It’s a smart move. Tourism is Egypt’s top foreign-currency earner, accounting for more than a tenth of GDP and employing one in eight workers.
But the most promising model for encouraging moderation among Islamists as they enter government comes from Morocco, a nation of 32 million people that has long led the Arab world in adopting an outward-looking world view not mired in hostility to Israel. A month ago, the country held new parliamentary elections in which, for the first time, it was stipulated that King Mohammed VI would automatically name the head of the party with the most votes as prime minister.
The Islamic Justice and Development Party (PJD) surprised many by coming in first with 107 of the seats in the 395-member parliament. The king promptly appointed the PJD’s leader as the new prime minister. It will be the first time the party has been in government since it began contesting parliamentary elections in 1997.