02/01/2012 03:52 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2012

The Inevitable Islamist Domination in the New Arab Democracies

On Wednesday of last week, Egyptians commemorated the first anniversary of their January 25 Revolution. Two days earlier, Egypt sat its first democratically elected Parliament in six decades. Unlike the sham parliamentary elections of 2010, these were, according to most accounts, free and fair -- which is why 70 percent of those now seated are Islamists. Tunisia's Islamist party, Ennahda, sought and won 41 percent of the seats in that country's Constituent Assembly, elected last year. The runner-up party in Tunisia has less than a third of Ennahda's seats.

For better or for worse, this Islamist political domination is not going to change any time soon, for various reasons, some less obvious than others.

First, there are basic demographics. Ninety-eight percent of Tunisians and 90 percent of Egyptians are Muslim. Because of decades of authoritarianism, no healthy scene of political competition had developed in either country. After the falls of Ben Ali and Mubarak, each country saw an explosion of political parties seeking power. Except for the Islamist parties, these parties were largely new, and ineffective at getting their messages and policy prescriptions to many segments of their respective populations (33 percent of Tunisians and 57 percent of Egyptians live in rural areas, and both countries have levels of Internet penetration below 35 percent). So when elections were held, voters saw a myriad of names and symbols representing unfamiliar political parties. In this confusing scenario, many simply voted for something they knew and that resonated with their identity; they voted for the Islamists.

Importantly, the Islamist parties of Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt have immense clout for having opposed the ousted autocrats long before the Arab Spring. Members of the groups suffered the brunt of the heavy-handed tactics of the former regimes. This is priceless political capital.

Besides the above reality, here are some more interesting advantages that Islamists currently

Money. Seeing the influence of today's Super PACs on the Republican primaries in the U.S. underscores the immense power of money in politics.

While it is probably impossible to determine exact numbers, conservative Gulf states, most notably Qatar, are widely known to financially support Islamist political parties far from their borders.

In Egypt, this money helps the MB campaign throughout the country. The money also, very importantly, supports the MB's social services, like schools and clinics. The secular parties don't have this grassroots presence, especially in rural areas.

When I observed the MB (and no other party) throwing bottles of juice into thirsty crowds of supporters in Tahrir Square last summer, I thought, "These guys are good." But you need money to do these things.

Besides money, mainstream Islamists campaign well.

While in Tunis last year, immediately before the election results had been determined, I spoke with some Tunisian friends about the future of their country. They commented on Ennahda's successful campaign.

Slaheddine, a neuroradiologist, told me, "The other political parties talked about things that are not a priority for normal Tunisian citizens." He said that they spoke of democracy and rights to people who are more concerned with things like food and clothing.

"The problem was that the democratic parties were talking about politics, and the Tunisian people have no political culture." He continued, "Ennahda didn't talk about politics. They spoke to the people in their own language."

What most troubles Slaheddine, though, is the sharp contrast between Ennahda's "on-the-ground" vs. "official" rhetoric.

"Ennahda has two languages. The first is sharia -- that it is a good thing and can be applied. Now in public spaces, Ennahda is saying that it will preserve women's rights." Slaheddine believes that the official rhetoric is used to ease the fears of the country's secularists and the closely-watching international community.

Ultimately, Slaheddine was describing the tactics of effective politicians.

What is perhaps the most interesting advantage for Islamists is the inevitably split secular vote.
Like elsewhere in the world, people who believe in secularism do not necessarily agree on social and economic policy. Even if secular parties in Tunisia and Egypt can agree on social policy, there will always be two major ideological currents with conflicting economic plans and thus at least two parties competing for the secular vote.

For example, Egypt's well-known protestors Gigi Ibrahim and Hossam El-Hamalawy are members of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists. The group helped establish the Workers Democratic Party and advocates for a socialist Egyptian state. On the other hand, Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian businessman (who is also Christian), founded the Free Egyptians Party, which calls for a business friendly environment. So while neither Ibrahim, El-Hamalawy, nor Sawiris wants an Islamic state, the sharp differences in their economic policy prescriptions will likely prevent them from joining forces, much to the benefit of the Islamist parties.

Sixty-two percent of Egyptians polled by Pew Research Center last year said that laws should be based strictly on the Qur'an. The remaining 38 percent of Egyptians are probably secularists whose differing views on economic policy will prevent them from ever forming a bloc.

So what lies ahead?

Seeing their political dilemma, some secular parties have already allied themselves with the MB to form the Democratic Alliance for Egypt bloc. Sawiris's Free Egyptians Party only recently left the group. This bloc, at the least, counters Salafi (Muslim fundamentalist) political influence. Salafis won 25 percent of the parliamentary seats.

I have heard many academics speak optimistically about the mainstream Islamist parties like Ennahda and the MB. They say things like, "No one wants to be the next Iran." Their optimism is not universal.

Slaheddine's daughter Lilly works for an NGO that promotes civic engagement. She foresees an eventual return to the caliphate period. "Ennahda has a ten to fifteen year business plan to instill sharia law."

"We are fearful for our future," Lilly said, visibly troubled.

If Ennahda really does want to establish sharia law, it may eventually be able to do so, as the demographic, financial, and political reality is overwhelmingly in its favor.