A patronizing narrative pigeonholes Arabs


A dominant but highly misleading narrative about the Arab world has taken root not only in the Middle East but also in some parts of the West. This perspective assumes the inexorable rise of Islamist parties and is impervious to contradictory evidence. The recent Libyan parliamentary elections have provided the starkest example of a contrary development.

It is now officially established, and highly significant, that the non-Islamist National Forces Alliance led by Mahmoud Jibril trounced Libyan Islamists, particularly in that portion of the voting process reserved for party lists. The separate results for individual candidates are not yet fully clear, but the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood says it will probably win only between 15 and 20 out of 120 individual seats.

This result was not widely anticipated, to say the least. But what is even more surprising than the outcome has been the reaction to it. The Western commentariat in particular has, with a few notable exceptions, largely reacted to the emerging electoral outcomes in Libya with disinterest, or even in a dismissive way.

The prevailing view remains that Islamists have nearly unassailable appeal at the present moment in Arab elections, and that the Libyan result is an exception that does not challenge that rule. Because Libya cannot be easily reconciled with the conventional wisdom, commentators have been engaging in extraordinary rhetorical contortions to protect their views from highly inconvenient facts.

For instance, columnist Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Washington Post, observed, despite the Libyan results, that what is taking place in the region is “an Islamist ascendancy, likely to dominate Arab politics for a generation.”

There is no doubt that Islamist parties will be major factors in the coming decades. But what Jibril’s victory demonstrates is that the “Islamist ascendancy” is by no means assured or even likely. There is an overpowering assumption, shared by voices on the left, right and center, that Arab politics are relatively homogenous across different states, and this is simply mistaken, even patronizing.

But the varying results in the recent Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan elections show otherwise. Firmness in sticking to this reductive perspective, despite the evidence of political diversity, is sometimes ideologically driven. However, in many cases it is simply an effort to embrace a comfortable narrative that simplifies a far more complex reality.

A second tactic in challenging the Libyan exception has been to suggest that, while Jibril’s alliance is not Islamist, it is also neither secular nor liberal in the Western sense. Those holding this view extrapolate from this that there is little difference between Jibril’s position and that of Islamists. Such an argument ignores the all-important gap between Libyans who are devout and those who would seek to make religion the centerpiece of politics and national life.

The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, is well aware of this dissimilarity. It has complained that Jibril and his allies don’t agree that “government must enforce Islam in every aspect of its work.” The main aim of the Brotherhood since its founding has been to erase all distinctions between Islam and Islamism, and between Muslims and the Muslim Brotherhood. The argument that Jibril’s coalition is no different than the Islamists only plays into the Brotherhood’s hands in an indefensible manner.

A third argument is that Libya is fundamentally different than the rest of the Arab world because of the legacy of Moammar al-Qaddafi, therefore that the elections mean little. Using this logic, no election results can be said to have regional significance. And if that’s true for one state, surely it’s true for all. But Arab societies are unique. Even the contiguous states of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are very different.

Fourth, it has been said that the Libyan results are regional and tribal in their consequences, rather than ideological. Islamism may have been defeated but, as troubling, tribalism has triumphed. However, the results of party voting were strikingly consistent throughout most of the country, which indicates otherwise. There is little evidence that this was primarily a tribal or regional vote, though Jibril’s belonging to the country’s largest tribe, the Warfala, certainly didn’t hurt him.

Imagine if Libya’s Islamists had won a decisive victory. We would have heard that this was more evidence of the ineluctable spread of Islamism in post-dictatorship Arab societies. How, then, can the Islamists’ defeat be anything but powerful evidence to the contrary?

Libya shows that Islamists can be defeated in contemporary Arab elections, and this should be celebrated and emulated, not ignored or dismissed. Worse, when the evidence is employed to derive conclusions in utter contradiction with observable reality, then the model that produces such distortions should be dispensed with as utterly inadequate.