North Africa is about to enter a perilous phase as several Arab states take their first steps toward democracy with the help of U.S. political consultants.
Following last winter’s uprisings that toppled three Arab dictators, U.S. officials and American political consultants have worked to foster a competitive campaign environment in post-revolution North Africa.
Policymakers, and the political consultants who were engaged on the ground, will get some idea whether they were successful when voting starts later this month. Moreover, they’ll learn whether that success translates into the emergence of stable, pro-Western democracies or helps inaugurate Islamist rule in the region.
The first real test comes Oct. 23 when voters in Tunisia will select a 217-member Constituent Assembly that will then be tasked with drawing up the country’s new constitution. The biggest concern in Washington is that well-organized Islamist parties in both Tunisia and Egypt will seize power through the ballot box and adopt an adversarial approach to the West and Israel.
Tunisia, which was the launching pad for the so-called Arab Spring last December, will be the first to hold free elections. But in this campaign, too much competition may be a bad thing, as far as Washington is concerned. There are more than 100 parties competing, although only two are top contenders – the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and Ennahda, the main Islamist party.
Washington has focused its assistance on building up the capacity of the PDP and other moderate parties, but there’s concern they could split the vote and hand victory to the Ennahda.
With political TV and radio advertising banned in the lead up to the vote, moderates are using Web videos to warn against an Islamist takeover. One series of spots invokes a vision of the “day after” Ennahda wins power.
“After they came to power, they misused religion to ban the Internet,” a student says in one of the spots, according to a translation of the script provided to C&E. “The arts…football…music. Now there is nothing anymore. They destroyed the country. There is no place for enjoyment. … I want to leave this country. There is no life here.”
(Click here to read C&E's latest cover story on American consultants exploring opportunities in the Arab world.)
Meanwhile in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party could capture a majority in the country’s Nov. 28 parliamentary elections.
“By most estimation and prediction, the Muslim Brotherhood’s new party is among the better organized or prepared for electoral competition,” a Washington-based consultant who works with USAID and the State Department, recently told C&E. “The thrust of our efforts are being placed on those other groups that are new.”
With an eye toward preventing landslide victories for Islamist parties, the Obama administration has allocated close to $200 million to democracy building in Egypt and Tunisia.
American law prohibits sending money directly to foreign political parties, though past administrations have skirted that restriction. George W. Bush’s administration used USAID money in the Palestinian territories to try to bolster Fatah’s popularity ahead of the 2006 parliamentary elections. Some $2 million in U.S. funds went to promoting the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority.
One American-funded publicity event, a tree-planting in Ramallah, resembled a Fatah political rally, according to the Washington Post.
Hamas, which went on to win both the elections and a majority in the territorial parliament, used U.S. involvement as a political bludgeon. One of the most common Hamas slogans during the campaign: "Israel and the United States want Fatah: Who do you want?”
Policymakers shouldn’t lose sleep over the outcome of this fall’s elections across North Africa, argues David Williams, a Massachusetts based-pollster who polled in Egypt and Tunisia for the International Republican Institute this past spring.
Any election winner could potentially “kidnap the democratic process,” Williams says. “That’s a danger that exists no matter whether it’s an Islamist party or not an Islamist party. Not being able to gaze into the future, you can’t really substantively make those judgments at this point in time. You hope not.”