Back in the days when the term ‘Arab Spring’ referred to a dubious brand of mineral water, one of the main arguments for Western support of Middle Eastern dictatorships posited by some experts in the field of International Relations (‘IR’) was that no matter how bad the incumbent in the presidential seat (or royal throne), the alternative would be infinitely worse – and there was only ever one alternative, a Muslim fundamentalist (later ‘Islamist’) theocrat whose despotism would not be tempered by sensitivity to the energy needs of the (then) industrialised world.
Barely two years after the commencement of the political upheavals in the MENA region, this longstanding thesis – like many a Mediterranean economy – is on the verge of total bankruptcy, even though relatively few commentators appear to have realised this.
1. Theocracy? What Theocracy? Any reasonable awareness of post-1990 trends in political thought within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (‘OIC’) member countries would lead to the conclusion that the popularity of the paradoxically modern theocratic model – even amongst conservative Islamists – was on the wane. Particularly after the end of the Cold War and the rise of satellite television, autocratic models of all hues have been increasingly under pressures they cannot easily control, as well as being unfashionable; by the mid-2000s, even some of the most socially radical groups had embraced political democracy as an ideal – which, crucially, meant embracing political competition.
2. Bread and Games. While people cannot be content with flatbread and football alone, any government which fails to provide these goods is likely to find itself in trouble. The main Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia, which enjoyed considerable logistical and organisational advantages over both their ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ rivals, have seen political capital accrued over many decades squandered in a matter of months because they have not managed to fulfil the basic expectations of their populations. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has seen its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party plummet from an expected near-monopoly of power at various stages in 2011 to a 24.78% share of the vote in the first round of the summer 2012 presidential elections, with the FJP widely expected to fare considerably worse during this April’s parliamentary polls as the cost of living and soccer behind closed doors take their toll; Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement formed a coalition government in 2011, and with its popularity eroding is now likely to form a government of national unity. Full-spectrum dominance this is not.
3. Second Thoughts. With the erratic performance of the Freedom and Justice Party all-too-obvious, the idea that Muslim Brotherhood-populated or inspired political parties would sweep all before them in a democratising region does not appear credible, with Jordan’s recent parliamentary elections proving instructive: the Islamic Action Front’s boycott (together with that of several other smaller parties of various ideological hues) did little to dampen the final turnout, reported as being 56.6%.