Last year’s collapse of Arab regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya led to a political vacuum that secular groups were unable to fill. This should have come as no surprise. For decades, they were kept weak and divided by ruling autocrats in a bid to present themselves to the West as the only bulwark against the radical Islamic movements.
The Islamists, generally regarded as the most enduring and efficient political force, seized the opportunity. It is a small wonder that they won big in the free elections that followed: 37% of the vote for Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly and 65% of the vote in Egypt’s parliamentary elections; while the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, won the presidency with 52% of the vote.
As a result, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that, absent vote rigging, Islamist victory at the polls is a foregone conclusion, but you had better think again. The fact of the matter is that Islamists are nowadays more vulnerable than many would have anticipated, and their presumed invincibility at the polls is a myth.
In Tunisia, in a poll conducted last May by the respectable Assabah newspaper, 53% of respondents agreed that a secular “centrist party” would be in a position to win the next election. Former Prime Minister Essibsi, who is generally credited for successfully managing the transition period, did just that. At a popular rally, on June 23, he announced the creation of a centrist party, “Call for Tunisia,” whose declared aim is “seeking an alternative to Islamism.” Its success may come as no surprise, given the public outrage already noticeable in the country, with artists protesting against the new forms of censorship, hotel owners and travel agents marching as they did on June 16 in the capital city to call for security, and unemployed youth rioting constantly for jobs.
Similarly, Egypt’s 52% vote for the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, while a testament to the organization’s unmatched mobilizing capabilities, could also be viewed as an indication of its loss of popular support. The presidential election percentage is about 13 percentage points below what the Muslim Brothers and the Salafists got together in the parliamentary elections, less than 6 months earlier.
Indeed, the 52% vote for the Brotherhood’s candidate includes not only the Salafists, but also liberals and revolutionaries who could not vote for a Mubarak crony. Moreover, their number increased significantly before the second round of the presidential elections, in reaction to the so-called “soft coup” attempted by the military, as it arrogantly restored martial law, disbanded the parliament, stripped the incoming president of his powers, and gave itself the authority to oversee the drafting of the constitution.
Three factors should be taken into account in order to assess the Islamists’ chances in future elections. First, even as they lead in the polls, Islamists have thus far received only a fraction of the total number of eligible voters: 1.5 out of 7 million in Tunisia; and 13 out of 50 million in Egypt’s presidential elections. Hence, in both countries, roughly one citizen out of four either voted non-Islamist or abstained. Higher participation rates are likely to benefit the non–Islamist groups. This is not to say that the elections results so far were not representative of the general mood of the population, but it is a known fact that the Islamists already reached their potential in terms of mobilization, benefiting from their effective chains of command, the discipline of their membership base, and the financial incentives which amounted to vote buying in many well documented cases. This is in contrast to others who may have failed to vote just for lack of transportation, particularly in remote areas. Under these circumstances, one couldn't see what more they could do in future elections to match an increased participation by their secular foes.
Second, Islamism, i.e., the implementation of sharia (Islamic Law) and the reestablishment of the Caliphate, doesn’t appear to be among the chief reasons for which people voted for the Islamist parties. In relatively secular Tunisia, a poll conducted by Sigma Conseils right after the overthrow of the old regime showed that about 70% of respondents were against the implementation of sharia. That was probably the main reason behind Ennahdha’s recent decision to renounce its previous attempts to introduce sharia as a source of law in the new Constitution.
Similarly, in more conservative Egypt, the Brookings 2012 Public Opinion Survey, which was conducted during May 4–10, showed that only 9% of respondents ranked the role of religion as their first preference for the presidential candidate. This figure is compared to 19% who ranked first the candidate’s past experience, 22% who ranked his ability to manage the economy, and 33% who ranked the personal trust of the candidate.
When the question is asked differently, 66% of Egyptian respondents to the Brookings survey said they wanted to see sharia as the basis of law-making, but 83% of them also said it should be adapted to modern times. Therefore, it is safe to assume that whether in the Tunisian case of “Islamism light” (i.e., Islamism without sharia) or in the Egyptian case of “sharia with strings attached,” popular support for the Islamists is far from being unequivocal.
Third, time doesn’t seem to be on the Islamists’ side. In less than six months, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood lost up to 40% of the votes in some areas, including places long considered their strongholds in the Nile Delta. This was in part due to their poor performance in the parliament, and to their lying to the public, as 71% of respondents to the Brookings Survey said it was a mistake for the Muslim Brotherhood to field a candidate for the presidential elections after they promised not to do so.
In the first elections following the fall of Egypt and Tunisia’s autocratic regimes, three factors helped Islamists win at the polls: (1) their unmatched organizational capabilities, (2) a popular feeling of revenge against the remnants of the old regime, and (3) a reward for the Islamists’ long and principled opposition, and (4) a “bandwagon effect” as people noticed the mood in favor of the Islamist, many joined in, not by conviction, but because they saw no point in voting for what they perceived to be a losing party. The last two factors are no longer relevant. Therefore, the inexperienced, albeit still appealing, Islamists are left on their own for now, seeking the votes of people who prioritize security and jobs.
The ruling Islamists’ failure to deliver, in this respect, offers the seculars an opportunity. In Tunisia, this was seized with a noticeable success, as witnessed by a series of surrenders on; (1) the Islamization of the school curricula, (2) the introduction of sharia in the Constitution, and (3) several restrictions on individual freedoms.
In other transitioning countries, this surrender of Islamist parties is just as likely. It has already started in Egypt, where the softened Brotherhood’s newly elected president expressed his willingness to appoint a Christian and a woman as deputies, and to set up of a coalition government, which is a far cry from the Brotherhood’s program of 2007, which barred Copts and women from the presidency, and called for a “Council of Scholars” with veto powers on the democratically elected parliament.
With regards to future elections, secular parties had better take into account the above indicated Islamist vulnerabilities. The three main pillars of the newly – devised strategy should be: (1) unified lists so their votes translate into parliamentary seats, (2) better mobilization since they should benefit from a higher participation rate, and (3) a clear program on what voters want most: security and jobs.
Mohamed Bechri is a former president of the Tunisian section of Amnesty International.