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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Emile Nakhleh and Augustus R. Norton

Islamists and democracy can mix

EGYPTIANS ARE expected to elect a new parliament tomorrow, and voter turnout and conduct at the ballot will serve as a barometer of political freedom in Egypt. But violent confrontations last week between demonstrators and security forces, as well as growing calls for the removal of Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, may prompt the security force’s generals to further tighten their grip on power.

After President Hosni Mubarak’s removal, the senior generals who comprise the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces pledged they would shepherd the transition to democracy and then exit politics. In recent months, however, they have attempted to cement their authority over the government and the constitutional process and to shield their budget from scrutiny.

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While applauding new freedoms in Egypt, the Obama administration seems to have given a thumbs-up to the security forces. But the generals are no democrats and may reinstall the sort of dictatorship that will undermine US policy and provoke turmoil.

Both the security forces and senior US officials are apprehensive that this week’s elections will bring the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to power, and there is little doubt that the Brotherhood is poised to win a plurality of seats this week and in run-offs scheduled for December and January. But rather than trying to dilute the election results through military diktat, the United States should insist that the security forces honor the results and hand over power.

Misplaced fears about the implications of an Islamist sweep are often heard in Washington, where some media pundits have asked whether the Arab Spring is devolving into an Islamist Winter. But Tunisia’s election provides an instructive model on an alternative to that scenario. The election fostered a coalescence of Islamist and secular politicians. The victory of the Tunisian al-Nahda party, which won a 40-percent plurality, may be a harbinger for the coming of Arab political normalcy and the delegitimization of “Arab exceptionalism.’’ Al-Nahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has begun reaching out to secular groups to form a coalition government, a move that would not have happened before the demise of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

The pragmatic behavior of Islamist parties in national legislatures should be the litmus test as to whether Western governments should engage them during transition to democracy. Their legislative performance, not ideological platforms or interpretations of the sacred text, should be the metric by which to judge their credibility as mainstream political actors.

Islamist parties that have been part of governments in Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Turkey, and elsewhere have not threatened their countries’ national security and stability. On the contrary, they have been credible and legitimate defenders of good government and the rule of law, and strong proponents of tolerance and pluralism.

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The lesson from the Tunisian elections should be equally clear to the remaining Arab authoritarian regimes. Dominating the political space, persecuting minorities, violating their peoples’ human and civil rights, and blaming foreign “agents and provocateurs’’ for anti-regime protests will no longer work. This regime narrative is no longer believable, whether in Syria, Bahrain, or Saudi Arabia.

When the people of Dara’a, in southern Syria, took to the streets to denounce regime brutality, they were not driven by outside “armed gangs.’’ When Bahrainis protested the repression of their government in Pearl Square, they were not manipulated by Iran or by a radical Shia ideology.

Arab autocrats must realize by now that the Arab Spring is an Arab reality, not a foreign transplant. It will touch them despite their brutality or opulence. Arabs are telling their regimes, “Enough is enough. We want to run our own affairs as free citizens.’’

These regimes ought to heed President Obama’s words, which he directed to Bashar al-Assad of Syria: Either initiate genuine reform or get out of the way. This is the lesson we should take away from the Tunisian and Egyptian elections.

Emile Nakhleh founded and directed the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the CIA. Augustus Richard Norton is professor of anthropology and international relations at Boston University.

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