“We are suspect of those who would use the democratic process to come to power, only to destroy that very process in order to retain power and political dominance… While we believe in the principle of 'one person, one vote, we do not support 'one person, one vote, one time."
This was the famous Djerejian doctrine as formulated by the American diplomat Edward Djerejian in the early 1990s, a doctrine which has dominated American and western perceptions of political Islam in its different currents, ever since.
During a forum I attended last Spring in Washington DC on post-Arab-Spring Egypt, months before the military coup in Egypt, there was much talk over whether the Muslim Brotherhood would allow future transparent elections in Egypt or not, and how keen US officials and the political elites were on representative voting.
However, on the very few occasions when elections have taken place, it is the the west which seems able only to accept and support such elections for one vote and one time, when the results serve its interests.
Algeria was the first of those tests where Islamists won ballots but were prevented from governing. The one vote, one time rule was applied by Algerian secular generals, who pushed the country into a bloody civil war whose wounds have not healed till this day.
The second of those tests was in Palestine, where the west punished Palestinians for electing Hamas. Till today, Gaza is the largest open-air prison in the world, with no hope of having elections in the near future although the movement is still more popular than western-backed Fatah.
In Egypt, the military and secular political elite succeeded in trashing the post-revolution ballot box, staging a military coup bringing down the first democratically elected president in the history of Egypt, to resurrect Mubarak’s dictatorial regime, if not even worse.
A deeper look into the brief period of political openness between the 2011 revolution and the 2012 coup shows how the Muslim Brotherhood exercised the principle of relinquishing power if defeated in elections. While the Islamists managed to win a majority in parliament as well as the presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated lists and alliances conceded defeat in other elections such as the student unions and professional syndicates, especially in urban areas.
Despite the decline in their popularity, and the overall dissatisfaction with their performance, the president along with his Freedom and Justice Party insisted on going ahead with the legislative elections as mandated by the Constitution. Yet, they were blocked twice. The first time by a highly politicized Constitutional Court, and a second time by the military coup, which the vast majority of the secular opposition cheered on.
The international community also took part in crushing the Egyptian peoples’ hope for genuine democracy when the United Nations General Assembly received the coup leader General Abdel Fattah El Sisi as the president of Egypt during its last meeting, a general who had reached power after a bloody coup and after elections described as rigged by the New York Times. He was welcomed by the west as the leader of the road map for Egypt’s transition to democracy.
Ennahda group at the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, 2011. Wikicommons.Yet, the most powerful blow to the Djerejian doctrine has come from Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, where parliamentary elections took place this October.
The elections in Tunisia offered a genuine example of how Islamists cede power and respect the popular will when they lose in the ballot box through free and fair elections.
The historical image of the Nahda party leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, calling the winning Nidaa leader, El-Sebsi, to congratulate him provides evidence and confirmation that many western political pundits were wrong about political Islam, to the point where they have justified the suppression of Islamists and supported their exclusion from politics for fear of their monopoly over power through elections.
However, this is not the end of the story. There are legitimate concerns that Nidaa Tounes, the secular coalition that won the elections which is composed mainly of previous Ben Ali regime figures, might begin to crack down against Islamists in an attempt to weaken their ability to compete in future elections.
The international community, which tolerated the crackdown in Egypt, describing it as a return to democracy, must not accept a soft coup on democracy in Tunisia.
The Djerejian doctrine has proven to be false. But allowing Tunisia to fail and return to a dictatorship will put an end to the notion that Islamists can reach power through fair and representative elections, especially in a region where those winning elections get imprisoned and executed while those replacing the ballots with swords and guns seize ground despite looming airstrikes.