A casual observer of the Arab world will most likely have concluded that the experiment in adapting political Islam to democracy has already failed. Almost two years ago, as the Arab revolutions began in Tunisia, it seemed a foregone conclusion that political pluralism on a western model would take the place of the ageing autocrats who had been kept in power for decades by their security services.
two years is a long time in revolutionary politics. Egyptians will
begin voting tomorrow on their new constitution, against a background of
bloody protests against the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, who is
accused of trampling over the liberal and secular opposition to create
an Islamic state.
While demands for a boycott of the vote appear
to be weakening, the constitutional process will be tainted in the eyes
of many Egyptians and observers abroad. The new constitution was drawn
up by a Constituent Assembly controlled by Islamists after liberals and
representatives of the Coptic Christian minority walked out.
Morsi makes no apology for his rush to put the draft to a vote. In his
view, the supreme constitutional court, a power centre filled with
appointees from the old regime, was on the point of dissolving the
assembly. This would have amounted to sabotage of the transition to
democracy under the guidance of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned forces
which won two elections.
While there is some truth in Mr Morsi's
suspicions about the judges, he has failed to understand the basic tenet
of democracy: the tyranny of the majority is hardly better than any
other type of tyranny. The majority has to show some respect for
minority views, and not use the institutions of democracy to engineer a
Looking at the wider Arab world, parliamentary
democracy in Iraq has created an ineffectual government, based largely
on sectarian parties, and scarred by some of the more rapacious
corruption in the world. This was not the aim of the Americans when, 10
years ago, they decided that post-Saddam Baghdad would be the centre
from which liberal democracy would fan out across the region.
does it all have to end in disaster? Recently I have had the chance to
speak to the two leading figures in Tunisia's transition from
dictatorship to democracy, Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the
Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) movement, and Moncef Marzouki, the
interim president, who is a veteran opposition figure and human rights
The Tunisian transition is hardly going smoothly: it
should have concluded in October, with a new constitution and the
holding of new elections, but the process is being delayed by
differences between the Islamists and the secular parties in the
government coalition. It looks like elections will not be held for
another year. Meanwhile, the clamour is growing for authorities to
create jobs for the poor who have seen nothing from the revolution and
have lost their fear of the police.