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Will Islamists really fail in government?

The new mantra against Islamist politicians is that they can succeed in opposition but fail in government; experience of holding the reins of power will, it is alleged, reveal the paucity of their skill in governance.

The main question that comes to mind when we hear Islamists' opponents singing this tune is this: what will they be judged against? The current situation which they will inherit when the governments are formed? There is an old saying: "Those who do things first, make it difficult for their successors." It might be easy for the first wave of Islamist leaders to succeed, because almost anything has to be better than the status quo. So how difficult will their successors find it? Critics should hold their tongues for the time being, because the nationalists, secularists and leftists who have been in charge before now, and still are in some regimes, haven't set a very high standard for the Islamists to beat.

The fact is that the old regimes offered little to their citizens, apart from those who are already wealthy. Little was invested in the infrastructure to benefit the population. Lack of freedom and little political participation have been the hallmarks of these governments. They are essential in today's world and few would exchange them for more economic well-being.

In China, despite a high level of economic development, people still want pluralism; only the strict security forces have prevented mass demonstrations of the kind seen in the Arab world. The leadership in Beijing is fearful of a "Chinese Spring" and its effects. When power is coupled with security and wealth, freedom is suppressed and the majority are impoverished.

This is a result in part of the bias of the economic programmes imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and is thus the logical end-result of savage globalisation. Islamist governments need to be alert to this because the interests of the majority of the people they govern are much more important than the interests of external investors.

Such will be the challenge of Islamists in government, but if the limited experience in the Gaza Strip is anything to go by, there is hope. The government there operates under a strict blockade within a very conservative community. Those hostile to the Islamists in power there would say that freedoms are limited; this stems in part from the security situation, but official intervention in the privacy of the people is also limited. Economically, while there have been obvious difficulties due to the blockade, overall the government has performed reasonably well. The governing body, Hamas, has seen the need to prosecute a small number of people involved in corruption and imprison them; there is no tolerance in such matters, unlike other countries where "money talks" and power corrupts.

Gaza is not an ideal model of course because it is not an independent state, but the challenges that the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia face will also be difficult, and obstacles will be put in their way. Authority in such countries is not limited to the government; the military and security services will have their say and, as in most Arab countries, they have been involved in corruption and are unlikely to accept the new situation easily. This will be arguably the major challenge facing the new Islamist governments.

The public is aware of this, of course, just as the people of Turkey realised that Prime Minister Erdogan could not move freely when it came to internal affairs because of the dominance of the military over the politicians. He had to manoeuvre carefully to split the strong alliance between the military and the extreme secularists. This is not an exact analogy, but the people of Tunisia in particular have suffered under forced secularism as the Turks have.

It should not be overlooked that the Islamic movements are full of expertise waiting to be used for the benefit of the people. Such expertise was not utilised by the old regimes which preferred rule by corruption and favouritism rather than qualification and skills. Islamically, we are advised to employ the most qualified and the best suited to the role.

There are undoubtedly major challenges ahead and Islamists are only human; they can be right or wrong, and even corrupt, but what the Arab Spring has shown us is that the issue goes beyond ideology to the people's right to choose and hold accountable those who rule them no matter what their political identity is. The challenge of government is a step in the right direction of real choice. The people of Morocco, for example, are seeing some competition between two Islamic groups, one of which is insisting on full democracy and constitutional rights while the other is content to operate under the monarchy. In Egypt, the Islamic parties offer varied but contrasting programmes and non-Islamic parties, and even anti-Islamic groups, offer other options.

Let the people be the judge, for when the people are the reference, they will choose what suits them best. Once they have had the opportunity to choose their government, and discovered their ability to promote real change, they will not allow anyone to enslave them again. This reality is something of which the Islamists are well aware.

Hence, the claims that Islamists will be seduced by power and abandon democracy, carry little authority. Unlike the Islamists in Sudan, for example, they are not coming to power through a military coup; they are doing so from the grassroots up.

There will always be those who express their hatred of Islamists, even if they offered a great model such as Umar bin Abdul Aziz, and even if they liberated Palestine, but this should not concern the parties coming to power in Egypt and Tunisia. They have to pay attention to the majority of the public who are looking for what benefits them, not in shallow matters such as those which the secular groups are trying to raise – as if bars and scantily-dressed tourists are the main problems facing the country – but in terms of employment and dignity. There will be plenty of predators waiting for the Islamists to fail, but I would suggest that they may have a long wait ahead of them.

This article is a translation from the Arabic which appeared on AlJazeera.net 23/12/11, the author is a Palestinian Jordanian.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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