These Islamists favored by the ballot box are not the Islamists of yore, hunted down by the mukhabarat (secret police). This is not the Muslim Brotherhood of the 1940s and 50s – conspirators pledged to the destruction of the ruling order. The new men may quote the legendary Sayyid Qutb who emerged out of the hothouse of that period, only to be sent to the gallows in 1966, but they are made of different material. Nor are we confronted here by the jihadists of Al Qaeda. There is no Ayman Zawahiri here, forged by torture and disappointment, leaving the Cairene world he knew for the caves and safe houses in the AfPak wilderness – let alone the killer Abu Musab Zarqawi, a half educated prison bully hunting down the Shia and the American infidels.
The new breed is a worldly lot, they had seen the wages of violence and had recoiled from it. They had wearied of being on the margins of political experience. They disdained the Arab rulers, but worked the small political space that the rulers had left unfilled, and pushed at its limits. They were no match for the officers and kings who dominated the Arab world. After all, men of the Muslim Brotherhood had sat in domesticated parliaments that the rulers rigged, displayed a hunger for acceptance and official favor.
The Islamist parties had not made that Arab awakening of 2010-2012. Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian vendor who triggered this angry Arab time, was not a member of the Brotherhood. The words he uttered had a simplicity that trumped any religious leaflet. He was a simple man, he said, and he just wanted to work. Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of An Nahda, was in exile when the Tunisian predator and bandit who claimed official power called it quits and left with the treasure he had looted. Ghannouchi swept in after the regime had fallen. In the same vein, the Muslim Brotherhood had not made the rebellion in Tahrir Square. Sly and cunning in the extreme, the Brotherhood was careful to remain equidistant between the armed forces and Tahrir Square. The stylishness of the Square, the freedom with which women took part in these protests, was anathema to the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s bet was on the armed forces: they were keen not to offend the officer corps. Truth be known, for the Brotherhood, this was a closing of a circle. Back in the early 50s, the Brotherhood had seen the revolt of the free officers as a “blessed movement,” they had readied themselves in the aftermath of the fall of the monarchy for a partnership with the new masters. Things had not gone in accordance with the script. A clumsy assassination attempt on Gamal Abdul Nasser sealed the fate of the Brotherhood. Prison and torture were the lot of the Brothers. They never recovered from the trauma.
In Islam, there is a tradition that recommends itself to those of us who worry about the fidelity of the Islamists to the cause of democracy. In the liberal practice of Islam, it is maintained that no one can truly know what is in the hearts of the believers. The profession of faith suffices lest men make hell out of public life. We have no choice but to take these newly empowered Islamists on faith when they tell us that they have made their peace with democratic practice. Tolerance will not be absolute here, movements like Hamas and Hezbollah have no claim on our sympathies. But we must grant this new democratic wave time and patience.
We must not exaggerate the power that came the way of the Islamists. These are sorrowful, difficult lands, the lands of the Arabs. They are riddled with tribalism and inequality, vulnerable to the writ of strongmen. Who would want to bet on the newly empowered Islamists in Morocco in the face of a sovereign hailing from a dynasty with more than three centuries of rule behind it, a monarch who styles himself “commander of the faithful” and claims descent from the Prophet? The ballot box brought Mohamed Morsi to the presidency in Egypt, but the men in uniform hark back to a tradition where the sword always disposed of absolute power. Caliphs ruled through long stretches of Islamic history. But the Mamlukes (the slave soldiers) behind the thrones cut them down without mercy or scruples. Yes, the ballot is full of promise. But this is still a fragile plant in the lands of the Arabs.
Fouad Ajami is the author of The Syrian Rebellion and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and co chair of the Herb and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, Hoover Institution.