Islamist Win in Tunisia Sparks Worry About Egypt: Noe & Raad

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By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad

Oct. 31 -- Since the Arab uprisings began in Tunisia almost one year ago, commentators in the regional media have debated what elections might mean for states liberated from dictatorship.

Tunisia, appropriately enough, spoke first, with national voting last week producing better than expected results for the Islamist party Ennahdha, which took 41% of the seats in the constituent assembly. Among secular commentators, worries about the outcome were muted, given the moderate nature of Ennahdha. Still, concerns were high that more conservative Islamists would do well in parliamentary elections in Egypt, to be held in three rounds starting in November. In the Egyptian daily Al-Masri al-Youm, columnist Dr. Amro az-Zanat wrote:

In Tunisia, just like in Turkey, secularism is not a hated word even for those who belong to political Islam. In Egypt, the situation is different.

Az-Zanat noted that Ennahdha officials have mirrored Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ideas, accepting freedoms such as the right to drink alcohol and wear a bathing suit publicly, whereas Egyptian Islamist parties have criticized Erdogan for espousing “secularist views.”

Egyptian Islamists, he said, hew to a belief system “closer to the Sudanese, Pakistani or Afghan models that led their countries toward doom.” He concluded that “the Egyptian revolution will face obstacles” that could prove “catastrophic.”

Writing in the Beirut-based, leftist daily As-Safir, columnist Sateh Noureddine agreed that outside of Tunisia, trouble lay ahead. Ennahdha’s win was not “a major shock,” given the mild brand of Islam it offers, he wrote. He even predicted that after a few years, "the Tunisians will discover that Islam is not the solution, and they will become certain that the Islamists are the problem.” This was a play on a favorite Islamist slogan, “Islam is the Solution.” As for elsewhere:

It won’t be easy to convince the Islamists in Egypt and all over the Levant that they represent only a third of society. It won’t be easy to prevent them from leading their countries toward the civil wars or sectarian seditions they are so good at. Nor will it be easy to convince them that their people are concerned about development more than the collapse of America, the dismantling of the West and the expansion of Islam in the world.

Hussein al-Rawashid, a columnist for the Amman-based daily Ad-Dustour, which supports Jordan's monarchy, had little patience for the complaining by leftist and secularist elites against the Islamists, who, he noted, clearly enjoy the trust and allegiance of a huge part of the population across the region.

He wrote that the elites rely on “slandering the Islamists and casting accusations against them as the only way to export their ideas.” He added, "even though the last thing I would think of doing is defending the Islamists,” the bitter truth is that “this elite does not wish to recognize that it has no weight on the street."

Meanwhile, media funded by Saudi Arabia, which has strongly backed Islamist parties throughout the Arab revolts, predictably praised the Tunisian election results and rejected concerns about the spread of Islamist power.

In an editorial, the Saudi-based daily Al-Watan celebrated Ennahdha's win and said it would "give momentum to other Islamic movements in other Arab countries, particularly Egypt.”

Its sister paper, Al-Riyadh, argued in an editorial that fears about Islamic rule were unfounded, concluding, “No Arab government will rule with the mentality of the Taliban.”

Even if that was a guarantee, it was a threshold insufficient to allay the concerns of many other thinkers in the region.

(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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-0- Oct/31/2011 21:25 GMT