11 July 2012
The “Arab Spring”: Good News
By Gwynne Dyer
The good news about last weekend’s election in Libya, as relayed by the Western media, was that the “Islamists” were defeated and the Good Guys won. The real good news was that democracy in the Arab world is still making progress, regardless of whether the voters choose to support secular parties or Islamic ones.
The Libyan election was remarkably peaceful, given the number of heavily armed militias left over from the war to overthrow the Gaddafi dictatorship that still infest the country. Turnout was about 60 percent, and Mahmoud Jibril, who headed the National Transitional Council during last year’s struggle against Gaddafi, won a landslide victory.
The explicitly Islamic parties, the Justice and Development Party (Muslim Brotherhood) and Al-Watan, did far worse than they expected, getting barely 20 percent of the vote in Benghazi, the big city in the east. But they should not have been surprised.
In Tunisia to Libya’s west and Egypt to the east, the Muslim Brotherhood was the mainstay of resistance to the dictatorships for decades, and it paid a terrible price for its bravery. It was natural for voters in those countries to reward Islamic parties when the tyrants were finally overthrown. Gaddafi was more ruthless and efficient in crushing all opposition in Libya, and the Muslim Brotherhoood had scarcely any local presence.
So Libya gets a “secular” government, while Tunisia and Egypt get “Islamic” governments – but the point is that they all get democratically elected governments, and stand a reasonable chance of becoming countries that respect human rights and the rule of law. Tunisia, indeed, has already made that transition, and Egypt, with one-third of the entire population of the Arab world, is still heading in that direction too.
The relevant question is not whether a party is Islamic; it’s whether it is democratic. The Western prejudice against Islamic parties (and local prejudice as well) comes from a confusion between Islamic and “Islamist” groups, the latter being the English word for fanatical groups that reject democracy and advocate violent jihad against infidels and “heretical” Muslims.
This confusion, sad to say, is often deliberately encouraged by Western and local interests that really know better, but want to discredit those who oppose them. That phenomenon was much in evidence during the recent Egyptian elections, where the other major parties, instead of offering serious policy proposals of their own, concentrated on trying to scare the voters about the “Islamic threat”.
It didn’t work in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s party won both the parliamentary and the presidential elections. This did not please the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its allies from the old regime, and they arranged for the Egyptian Supreme Court to dismiss the new parliament on a flimsy constitutional pretext.
Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohammad Morsi, has refused to accept the army’s decrees, and a delicate game is underway in Cairo in which he is trying to discredit the soldiers and gradually drive them back into their barracks without risking an open confrontation that could trigger an actual military coup. He will probably win in the end, because the army knows that the masses would promptly be back in Tahrir Square if it did try a coup.
And if Egyptians don’t like what their Islamic government does, they can always vote it out again at the next election.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.