“Islamists” on Probation: Western Reaction to Tunisian Elections

Following Tunisia’s first fair and free elections on October 27, the Western media responded with a characteristic sense of fear and alarm. For many, it seemed that the ghost of the Islamic menace was back to haunt ‘Western values’ throughout the Arab world. The narrative employed by media outlets was no more than cleverly disguised Islamophobia, masquerading as genuine concern for democracy and the welfare of women and minority groups.

The victory of the Ennahda (meaning Renaissance) Party was all but predictable. Official results showed that the party won more than 41 percent of the vote, providing it with 90 seats in the 217-member new Constituent Assembly, or parliament.

To quell fears of Islamic resurgence, leading party members seemed to direct their message to outsiders (the US and Western powers), rather than the Tunisian people themselves. Ennahda’s Secretary General Hamadi Jebali, slated to be the next prime minister, labored to “reassure secularists and investors, nervous about the prospect of Islamists holding power in one of the Arab world’s most liberal countries, by saying it would not stop tourists wearing bikinis on the beaches nor impose Islamic banking” (BBC, October 26).

Jebali, like the party leader Rachid Ghannouchi, understands well the danger of having Ennahda blacklisted by disgruntled Western allies, whose past conduct in the region is predicated on ostracizing any political entity that dared to challenge their interests. The European Union welcomed the results of the elections, but, of course, the subtle line was one of ‘let’s wait and see.’ Ennahda’s own performance is likely to determine its ability to overcome the difficult, albeit implicit probationary period designated by Western allies in these situations.

“The moderate Islamist Ennahda party is in talks with secular rivals about forming a coalition government,” reported Voice of America on October 28. The patronizing language of ‘moderation’, ‘extremism’ and ‘secularism’ is once again being employed to define the Arab political milieu. These are convenient labels that change according to where Western interests lie. The irony is completed by the fact that former Tunisia president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and now jailed Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, were once models for both ‘secularism’ and ‘moderation’ from American and European viewpoints.

The Western assessment of Tunisia’s future under an Islamic-led government actually has little to do with bikinis or alcohol. The question is entirely political, and is concerned with Tunisia’s attempt at seeking true sovereignty and independence from western hegemony.

Now that Ennahda has won Tunisia’s elections, and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt is expected to secure substantial gains in Egypt’s first post-revolution elections in November, a debate is raging around the new political map of the region.

Syria, naturally, is high on the agenda.

The debate is rife with mixed messages. Countries like the US and France, for example, pose as the guarantors of democracy, yet consciously confuse the term with sheer economic interests and military influence. This deliberate moral and political flexibility is what Ed Husain addressed in the Council on Foreign Relations website when he asked, “Is the US better off sticking with Syria’s Assad?”

The subject is meant to be examined entirely from a rigid realpolitik perspective, without allowing any ethical considerations to taint the investigative process. “Therefore, the assumption that a Syrian regime without Assad and the Alawites at the helm would mean an isolated Iran is wishful thinking at best, and uncertain at worse,” he concluded.

It other words, if Western invention in Syria can contribute to Iran’s isolation, then the US would abandon Syria’s Assad in exchange for a more advantageous alternative. While one appreciates such candid, although amoral, analysis, we must remain vigilant of any attempt at confusing the practical and materialist drive behind US and European foreign policy with notions of women’s liberation, minority rights or any other. If Tunisian (or Egyptian, Syrian, Libyan, etc) freedom was a paramount concern for Western powers, they would have isolated the dictators who emasculated and tormented their countries for many years.

Unfortunately, it is Western media that often determines the nature and extent of political discourses relevant to the Arab and Middle East region. Despite their repeated failures, they continue to unleash one offensive after another, creating fears that don’t exist, and exaggerating small events to represent grave phenomena.

One example is James Rosen’s article, “Arab Spring Optimism Gives Way to Fear of Islamic Rise,” which was published on Fox News online (October 28). “From the first stirrings of change in the Middle East nine months ago, optimism at the prospect of 100 million young people rising up to seize their democratic freedoms has been tempered by fear in Western capitals that radical Islamists might also rise up and try to hijack the so-called Arab Spring,” he wrote.

It matters little to the writer that Western powers were, in fact, filled with nothing but trepidation when the throne of Mubarak – once the US’ most faithful ally in the region – was taken down by millions of Egyptians. Nor is it important to him that it was NATO that hijacked the Libyan uprising (and they attempted to repeat their costly act in Syria). What seems to matter to Rosen is the inflated notion that ‘radical Islamists’ might rise up and hijack the ‘Arab Spring’.

The debate regarding Islam in politics is likely to continue and intensify. Attempts will also be made to heighten or lower Western anxiety regarding the future of the ‘Arab Spring’. This discussion is not concerned with religion or the rights and welfare of Arab people. It is based only on crude political calculations, as demonstrated in an October 27 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Washington (as reported in Fox News on October 28).

The Middle East “really worries me,” said Rep. Dan Burton. He asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton what the Obama administration “plans to do make sure that we don’t have a radical government taking over those places.”

I think a lot of the leaders are saying the right things and some are saying things that do give pause to us,” she said. “We’re going to do all that we can within our power to basically try to influence outcomes.”

Is any further comment necessary?

Ramzy Baroud is an author and a journalist. His latest volume is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle (Pluto Press, London). He can be reached at ramzybaroud@hotmail.com. Read other articles by Ramzy.