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Why Islamists Winning Elections Is Good for Democracy and the War on Terrorism

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Journalists, pundits and politicians seem increasingly obsessed with fears that Islamists winning elections in the wake of successful Arab Spring uprisings will prove detrimental to democracy, regional security, and the War on Terrorism.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Having spent years studying and living in the Arab world, as well as fighting alongside the rebels in the Libyan Civil War, I have little concern about Islamists winning elections.

And they will win. The death, destruction, ritual prayer, and exclaiming Allahu Akbar throughout the day during an Arab Spring revolution will make people more religious, and they will be more inclined to vote for Islamist candidates. Additionally the Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, have been active and organized for years. A more religious population combined with the organizational advantages of the Islamist parties means they are ensured victories in the first elections following any Arab Spring revolution.

The fact is, however, the victory of Islamist political parties in democratic elections, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, is beneficial to the United States, the region, and the future of democracy for two reasons.

First, one of the most significant outcomes of the decade-long War on Terrorism has been an abundance of research into the causes of terrorism. This research has produced an overwhelmingly consistent conclusion: terrorists become terrorists to pursue political causes under systems of government where they lack the ability to do so by peaceful means. The majority of terrorists come from countries where civil liberties and political rights are suppressed. They choose violence over votes to achieve political outcomes because it is the best (and often only) strategy available.

Given this reality, the single best way to reduce terrorism is to convince terrorists that they can achieve their goals and gain power using the ballot box instead of bombs. Islamists, the vast majority of whom are not terrorists, will choose politics as their battlefield if they believe they can win elections, and winning the first elections after an armed struggle will convert many of the terrorists to politicians. Once they enjoy the trappings of political power (including lining their pockets through corruption) they are unlikely to return to violence.

Carl von Clausewitz called war "politics by other means." The reverse is also true. Politics is war by other means. It is also far more profitable and potentially successful than terrorism.

Second, Islamists are unlikely to remain in power beyond a few election cycles. Following an Arab Spring revolution the people's expectations are unreasonably high and whoever wins the first elections will fail to meet those expectations and be voted out of office. Libyans were complaining about the NTC providing basic services once Tripoli fell, and the war wasn't even over yet. It is far better for Islamists to take the fall as the first elected party and pave the way for secularists to defeat them in subsequent elections, than it is the other way around. Those who gain power first in a new and fragile system of government will also be involved in more corruption, which when exposed will damage that party's reputation in future elections.

Critics of this view will argue that Islamists may attempt to establish a non-democratic system of government to hold onto power. During my experience fighting in the Libyan Civil War I never heard rebels claim to want anything other than democracy. Furthermore, any attempt by Islamists to undermine a democracy that thousands gave their lives for (and many more were wounded for) would be met with violent opposition. Arabs have spilled blood for their democracy and appreciate it on a level that few Americans will ever understand -- they will take up arms against anyone, including Islamists, who try to undermine their hard-won freedom.

Radical Islamist terrorists like Ayman al-Zawahiri of al Qaeda have harshly criticized Islamist political parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Zawahiri understands that the spread of democracy through the Arab Spring has the potential to destroy al Qaeda by drying up recruitment and funding, and undermining the supposed 'need' for jihad in the first place.

Regardless of the consequences of the Arab Spring for the United States, the Arab Spring will not stop, and if the US wants any influence in the newly democratic countries it needs to form relationships with all political forces, especially Islamists, and should begin before the revolutions are finished. Once a country goes democratic it is up to the people to decide their future and if they vote for Islamists then that is their choice. We only have the choice how to respond. We can influence them through persuasion and policy, but we will never control them or dictate who they should elect.

To do so would be profoundly un-democratic.