The irresistible rise of Muslim democrats in the Middle East

Muslim democrat Mohammed Morsi with protesters following the Mubarak verdict last weekend. EPA

Whatever the outcome of the Egyptian presidential runoff scheduled for 16-17 June, Middle Eastern electoral politics are now conforming to a remarkable rule. When elections are held in a free and fair environment, moderate Islam is not only a force to be reckoned with but, usually, reports resounding victories.

Following the Arab Spring, the rise of moderate Islam has redesigned the political landscape of North Africa. Moderate Islamist parties have obtained parliamentary majorities in the elections held in post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt and – outside of the framework of the Arab spring – semi-authoritarian Morocco.

Yet, to be fully understood, the electoral rise of moderate Islam ought not to be restrictively interpreted vis-à-vis post-2011 North Africa.

From Turkey to Tunisia

The successful electoral platforms advanced by Ennahda in Tunisia and the Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD) in Morocco represented the most recent manifestations of a longstanding trend inaugurated by the AKP in Turkey and controversially followed by Hamas in Palestine.

From 2002 onwards, the advancement of democracy in the Middle East (with the notable exception of post-Baathist Iraq) has invariably required the involvement of moderately religious political actors.

These politicians successfully met the expectations of the different populations. Some demonstrated a superior organisational capability (Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), others a closer proximity to the business interests of a growing bourgeoisie (AKP). More simply, some had an immaculate record vis-à-vis corrupted regimes (Ennahda, PJD) or declining political opponents (Hamas).

Economic credentials

Moderate Islam, in the many authoritarian contexts in which it prospered, capitalised on its outsider status, moving from a condition of political marginalisation, unlawfulness or exile to having legitimate standing. The accession to power of moderate Islamic politicians has also been followed by the establishment of relatively successful governments.

The dual call for hurriya (freedom) and tanmiyya (development) was behind the Arab uprisings of 2011. As regimes fell for their disastrous political and economic performances, the post-revolutionary governments are expected to deliver in both economic and political terms.

For these reasons, there is much anticipation around the economic choices moderate Islamists will make in North Africa.

Ennahda’s leadership appeared conscious of such expectations and provided an economic agenda that, at least in the banking sector, will attempt to strike a balance between traditional outlooks and more modern stances. The Muslim Brotherhood and the PJD are measuring their permanence in power by their ability to attract (and maintain) an increasing amount of foreign direct investment.

The AKP – in spite of its human rights record – stabilised the quality of Turkish governance and, most importantly, delivered a rather remarkable economic performance.

And it is precisely here – at the intersection of politics and economics – that the irresistible rise of moderate Islam can profoundly (and perhaps irreversibly) change the Middle Eastern landscape.

Recognising democrats

Asking whether governments led by moderate Islamic parties meet the standards upheld by international democratic practices is shaping to be a futile exercise.

These organisations have already demonstrated they have the support of their respective populations, have publicly outlined agendas that do not systematically subjugate modern values and, most importantly, have repeatedly declared their opposition to the more conservative interpretations of the Islamic belief system.

It is time international public opinion recognised these parties for what they ultimately are: Muslim Democrats – a label reminiscent of the Christian Democratic political tradition that prospered in Western Europe throughout the Cold War.

The likely path

Moderate Islamic parties throughout the Middle East are likely to follow the path traced by the AKP in Turkey: advancing a moderate Islamist agenda at home and embracing a free market credo in shaping the country’s economic outlook.

Turkey’s solid economic performance – characterised by significant GDP growth (8.2% in 2010) and an enviable trade profile – increased the electoral appeal of the AKP.

Rather than at 7th century Arabia, the Muslim Democrats might be looking at 21st century Ankara while shaping the future of the modern Middle East.