Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chair of the National Transitional Council in Libya, has declared that post-Qaddafi Libya will be governed by Islamic sharia law, and so polygamy will be legalised and usury banned.
In Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly elections at the end of October, the Islamist party Nahda won over 41% both of the votes and of the seats, a better result than had been predicted.
An October opinion poll in Egypt (Al Masry Al Youm, 11 October) found fully 67% undecided, 10% refusing to answer, 13% opting for liberal or secular parties, and 9% for Islamist parties. (Though on Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, people were clear: 76% want to keep it).
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is, by all accounts, the best-organised political operation in Egypt, and so must have good chances of mopping up a large part of the “undecided” vote.
The Muslim Brotherhood is also reported to be influential in the opposition in Syria.
None of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa where dictatorships have overthrown this year are yet locked in to a course like that of Iran in 1979, where the fall of the Shah led to the victory of an even bloodier and more brutal regime led by Ayatollah Khomeiny and other Islamic clerical-fascists.
In all of them, the working class currently has openings to organise and begin to shape developments.
The tightly-organised religious hierarchy of Shia Islam gave the Iranian Islamists a ready-made cadre force which none of the Islamist parties in mostly-Sunni countries can emulate.
Yet politics abhors vacuums. Liberal and secular bourgeois parties are weak in all these countries. Though left-wing groups are developing in Egypt and Tunisia, none of these countries has a large working-class based socialist party. The risk of the Islamists coming out on top thus remains serious.
The Islamist leaders in Egypt and Tunisia protest that they are moderate and tolerant. Nahda says it will not try to ban alcohol or bikinis. Jalil, in Libya, has hastened to say that he does not propose to change any laws immediately, and that “we Libyans are Muslims but moderate Muslims”.
For Western consumption, the Islamist leaders have compared themselves to Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, which has been in office since 2003 but stepped softly, operating more like an Islamic equivalent of a European Christian Democratic Party.
Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Nahda have, however, also made clear that they reject Erdogan’s explicit de facto acceptance of a secular state. And Khomeiny, in Iran, spoke relatively softly before gaining power.
We do not know enough to predict. An “Iranian road” remains possible. That would be a catastrophe for the workers, women, and democrats of the region, and a betrayal of all the best hopes of the “Arab spring”.
The best way to counter that danger is to support the socialists and the workers’ movements in the region.