The recent defeat of the Ennahda party in Tunisia's parliamentary elections was another setback for Islamists seeking to realize their objectives via democratic politics — a movement we'll call participatory Islamism. Islamist political parties have been surging since the Arab Spring in 2011, and will remain a force in the Middle East. But they face an uphill challenge in the form of resurgent autocratic states. In the meantime, the failures of participatory Islamists will further fuel their insurrectionist competitors, the jihadists, who have taken advantage of the situation where autocratic states collapsed or at least weakened and have not been replaced by democratic polities.
In the official results released Thursday, the Islamist Ennahda party, which won Tunisia's previous election in 2011 by a large margin (though with only 37 percent of the vote), came in second place with 69 seats and has since conceded defeat. Ennahda's main secularist rival, Nidaa Tounes, won a plurality of 89 seats. In the months leading up to the election, both Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes suggested that they would be open to a grand coalition. However, comments by Nidaa Tounes leaders following their victory — namely, that they would look to form a government with other democratic parties — have cast doubt on the possibility of secularist-Islamist cooperation.
Such a move would bring an end to the cross-ideological cooperation that has been in play since the last polls and has allowed Tunisia to continue on the path of democratization and avoid the fate of Egypt, where the democratic process was derailed. Prompted by a popular uprising, the Egyptian military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of former President Mohammed Morsi in a July 2013 coup. It is unlikely that Tunisia would go the way of Egypt, but there are fears that if Nidaa Tounes — a party formed two years ago that is dominated by members of the former regime of ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — were to win the presidential election next month as well, then the cradle of the Arab Spring might slide back toward authoritarianism.
A Divided Region
Herein lies the conundrum shaped by the twin trends of democratization and Islamism: The West would prefer secularists in its own image emerge from the crisis-ridden Middle East, but this is not going to happen. Islamists, many of who seek to realize their aims via democratic means, while others seek the path of armed insurrection (and still others fall somewhere in between) are the reality of the region.
The biggest concern for political establishments across the Arab world, as well as for international stakeholders, is how to deal with the demand for democratization while still containing radical Islamists. Tunisia represents a rare case where a successful process of democratization has — thus far at least — allowed a peaceful transition of power from Islamists to secularists. Every other state that experienced the Arab Spring either remains under authoritarian rule (such as in Egypt and Bahrain) or has collapsed into anarchy (Libya, Syria, and Yemen).
In the latter cases, anarchy has enabled the rise of jihadist forces that either want to establish an Islamic state by force in their respective nation-states or, worse, are engaged in a bloody struggle to do away with national boundaries and establish a caliphate. Even in cases where an old regime remains intact, the situation is extremely unstable — most prominently in Egypt. In these states, the common denominator on both sides of the ideological divide is the propensity towards authoritarianism.
Radical Islamists want to replace secular autocrats with their own version of autocracy. Even among mainstream political parties, whether secular or Islamist, the commitment to democracy ranges from weak to non-existent, as has been made clear in Egypt by the behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood and its secular opponents. Here is where the Tunisian experience of at least the past three years stands out as an outlier.
Both Ennahda and its secularist competitors agreed to operate in a way that would further democratization in Tunisia. They have yet to solve any of the country's chronic problems, but they have avoided the path of violence. If Tunisia's ideological rivals are unable to continue on this power-sharing path, then the small North African nation could follow the general political trend line in the region.
It should be kept in mind that a high number of fighters from Tunisia are already fighting in Syria and Iraq alongside jihadist groups — both in total numbers and as a percentage of its population. The country is split between a moderate Islamist party, staunchly secular parties, and a substantial Salafist and jihadist trend that rejects this political process in its entirety. In many ways, Ennahda is in the middle between Islamist extremism and radical secularism.
Moderation among Islamists is unlikely to be achieved if secularists opt for radical measures. The thwarting of democracy can push many otherwise moderate Islamists towards militancy. Such an outcome works to the advantage of the jihadists, who have an interest in seeing the region's experiment with democracy fail and, with it, the collapse of states.