A pragmatic Islamism? Wait and see

Two Egyptian women cast their votes in the first round of parliamentary elections in Cairo last week

Two Egyptian women cast their votes in the first round of parliamentary elections in Cairo last week

The success of Islamist parties in the relatively free general elections held in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt over the past two months has surprised even those who predicted that they would make major gains.

But is this the first sign of a radical movement that will take over in the region, changing the secular character of these countries' governments?

Egypt, where almost two thirds of the votes cast in the first round of parliamentary elections last week were for Islamist candidates, still has to go through a long series of elections both for its parliament and senate before the picture becomes completely clear.

In Tunisia and Morocco, "moderate Islamist" parties received the lion's share of votes and have signalled their willingness to form coalitions with more liberal-minded parties. Are these encouraging signs of pragmatism on the part of the Islamists - or are they working to a more sinister agenda?

Over the past week in Tunisia, demonstrations have taken place at Manouba University over the demand of Salafist students to allow women wearing full-face covering Niqabs to attend lectures. Students and lecturers from both sides have clashed at the university gates, with both parties shouting: "This is not what we had the revolution for." At the same time, members of liberal and secular parties have camped outside the Tunisian Parliament, claiming that the new coalition, dominated by the Islamist Ennahda party, is trying to "hijack" the writing of the new Tunisian constitution.

"The best we can hope for now is a form of pragmatic Islamism," says Yoav Stern, an expert on Middle East economic co-operation at the Peres Peace Centre. "Israel had begun to build economic ties with Tunisia; that won't be happening in the near future. That is because of the new situation in Tunisia but also because nothing at all is happening in the peace process with the Palestinians, and that is always connected."

"It isn't a foregone conclusion that countries like Egypt and Tunisia are going down the Iranian path," says a senior Israeli intelligence analyst, "these are very different countries and today's circumstances are totally unlike 1979. There are many other forces active in these countries which will pull in other directions and I think for the time being we will see interesting coalitions and a long process of democratisation that will probably take another decade. Meanwhile, all Israel can do is wait and watch."

This long-term view was echoed by Nasreen Tariqi, a university lecturer in Tunis who was taking part last week in an opposition demonstration outside the Tunisian Parliament.

She said: "The Islamist party did well in the elections, not because most Tunisians don't want a secular state any longer, but because it was well organised and had a narrative that was easily understood by the voters.

"The democratic parties did not have a clear message and were split within themselves into too many different groups. But these were the first free elections and now the real challenge is to fight over the constitution and prepare for the next elections, for which we will be much better prepared."

    Last updated: 12:27pm, December 8 2011