Islamists Aren't the Obstacle

How to Build Democracy in Egypt and Tunisia

Sunset in Old Cairo. (Amr Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters)

Two years after the Arab Spring swept through Tunisia and Egypt, many citizens of both countries are frustrated with the slow pace of change, discouraged by unmet expectations of more jobs and increased wages, and wary of lingering authoritarian political practices. Most recently, violent protests have broken out in Egypt and, in Tunisia, the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a prominent opposition leader, has spurred calls to dissolve the government. International observers are increasingly cynical about the prospects of democracy, arguing that the Arab Spring has turned into an Islamist winter.

This bleak prognosis is based on an incomplete understanding of the complex issues at hand and unrealistic expectations of a rapid, smooth transition. Analysts, such as Thomas Friedman, Daniel Pipes and Fareed Zakaria, use anecdotal evidence to explain the underlying political, economic, and social cleavages driving events on the ground. Even the most informed discussions often myopically focus on the strength and intentions of Islamists. Media coverage of ferocious contests in the streets, in parliament, and at the ballot box give the impression that the outcome of the transition will be determined by the relative strength of Islamists and secularists. Our recent research, however, suggests otherwise.

Surveys of 1201 Tunisians and 4080 Egyptians conducted in October-November 2012, nearly a year after post-revolutionary elections, show that institutions matter more than Islam in the democratization of both countries. Therefore, instead of fretting over Islamists, the international community needs to have a more nuanced conception of political transition in the Arab world and should strive to bolster institutions and economic reforms in post-Arab Spring countries.

Our research shows that citizens have more moderate attitudes toward the role of religion in politics than conventional wisdom suggests. A minority of the population -- 26 percent of Tunisians and 28 percent of Egyptians -- believes that Islam should play a large role in government. In Tunisia, only 27 percent of those who voted for the religious Ennahda party in 2011 want a close relationship between religion

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