Democratic regimes mushroomed under the “third wave”[i] of democratization, as authoritarian regimes were increasingly abandoned for the institutionalization and consolidation of democratic procedures, processes, and structures.[ii] Notably absent from this third wave, however, has been the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In the limited cases where democracy has seeped through MENA regimes, the overwhelming result has been a restricted form of democracy for which democratic principles concerning human rights, contestation, and freedom of speech hold tenuously.
Although frequent elections and a relatively high voter turnout are commonplace in many MENA states, political liberalization is not synonymous with democratization.[iii] Neither entirely dictatorial nor democratic, MENA regimes fall into what Thomas Carothers terms “the gray zone.”[iv] For incumbent regimes in this nomenclature, democracy is little more than a cosmetic treatment that goes on each morning, gets increasingly smeared by day, and washes off at night. Wielding an exceptional coercive apparatus,[v] robustly authoritarian regimes throughout the MENA region have proven adept in selecting from a “menu of manipulation” as a means to securing their place in the gray zone.[vi] What little opening incumbents have allowed for civil society has often been devoid of any meaningful contestation, with states placing stringent conditions on opposition groups, or co-opting them in exchange for shares of state patronage.[vii]
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, there is renewed hope for a more legitimate brand of democracy. However, much to the consternation of pro-democracy western governments, free and fair democratic contestation in countries emerging from the Arab Spring would in all likelihood mean the ascendance of political Islamist groups. Indeed, some analysts contend that political Islamist parties in the MENA region, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, have long been poised to win elections. Reflecting both their high-level of organizational adroitness and the particular socio-cultural dynamics of the countries they represent, had credible elections taken place over the last two decades in these countries, there is little doubt that political Islamists would have captured power.[viii] The broad-based appeal of political Islamists is perhaps best understood when taking into consideration their pragmatic modus operandi:
“The main reason for Islamists’ popularity is their hatred of corruption, the scourge of secular dictatorships throughout the region, and their promotion of justice and dignity, words that have resonated in the Arab spring even more than democracy. The Islamists appeal to the poor, often by providing a rudimentary welfare system via the mosque when state provision has been lacking. Their political appeal lies in their ability to get things done.”[ix]
Already in Tunisia, the moderate Islamist political party, Ennahda, has made significant inroads: In the October 2011 elections, they won 89 out of 217 seats (40 percent of the vote) in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly. In Egypt and Yemen, political Islamist parties are predicted to hold similar sway: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood claimed 40 percent of parliamentary seats in elections held in early January 2012,[x] while Al-Islah, the main Islamist party in Yemen, makes up 40 percent of the main opposition coalition.[xi]
Analysts skeptical of political Islamists have warned against political taqiyya or “dissembling,” accusing political Islamists of parroting rhetoric that fuels the impression of a genuine commitment to democracy only to abandon their democratic principles and institute a policy of “one-man, one-vote, one-time” once they have assumed power.[xii] In essence, political Islamists are suspected of being for democracy what the Trojan horse was for the Trojans: an undermining ploy cloaked in political correctness. In the same manner that allowing the Trojan horse to enter their dominion did not bode well for the Trojans, it is argued that opening the democratic field to political Islamists will yield comparatively similar consequences for democracy.
Examining The Trojan Horse Hypothesis
Below, the premises that underlie the Trojan horse hypothesis are reviewed. Several key assumptions are made, including:
All Islamists are militant. Distinctions between political and militant Islamists are often blurred, causing many to accept the hasty overgeneralization that all Islamists engage in terrorist acts of violence as a form of resistance against their governments. However, collapsing these diverse actors into one grouping is an egregious simplification of their nuanced nature. Whereas both actors ultimately seek to establish an Islamic state, political and militant Islamists differ in their methods of achieving this end.[xiii] In contrast to their militant counterparts, political Islamists have renounced violent methods, preferring instead to participate in the political process as a means to affect change.
Islamist parties suffer from an undemocratic internal structure. Many observers of political Islamist parties have cited an intraparty democratic deficit as troubling. Party structures are generally arranged into hierarchical, centralized organizations with top-down decision-making procedures. Concomitant with this structural composition is a lack of transparency, further shrouding the inner workings of these parties. This raises the question, how can democracy be feasible without democrats?
Religious parties produce pluralism concerns. The MENA region is replete with a diverse array of religious minorities, including Coptic Christians, Kurds, and Druze. It is argued that in countries that host minority groups, the establishment of an Islamist state could prove especially problematic because religious identity would be weighed over national identity.[xiv] Many states, such as Egypt and Turkey, have opted to ban religious parties for fear that communal tensions would be inflamed and compound into large-scale civil strife, as was the case in Lebanon between 1975 and 1989 involving that country’s religious factions.[xv]
Islamists have a troubling human rights record. Political Islamist parties with previous ties to violence, such as Egypt’s Islamic Group (al – Jama’a al – Islamiyya), have often been criticized for their human rights abuses. The obfuscation of political Islamists as militant has also contributed to this commonly held belief. Paradoxically, because of a contrived or sincere fear of political Islamism, authoritarian regimes in the MENA region have cited the political Islamist threat as a pretext for suspending or flagrantly violating human rights standards.[xvi] In Egypt, for instance, opposition groups are routinely harassed by security forces and particular members sent to prison for an indeterminate period of time on botched charges.