The victory for Tunisia’s Islamist party in last Sunday’s elections could signal that religious groups will dominate the region’s politics in the near future.
That could limit the opportunities for American political consultants in North Africa. “I think the opportunities for Western consultants in environments dominated by Islamist parties is minimal,” says David Denehy, a consultant with experience in Iraq.
One media consultant who was engaged in Tunisia said the results indicate the country is now “lost.” And it could be just the first regional domino, with Egypt and Libya the next to fall.
Many conservatives in Washington hold that same view, not least because Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group whose political party is best poised for electoral competition, told Bloomberg Businessweek it's emboldened by Sunday's results.
Ennahda, Tunisia's Islamist party, claims early results show it to have won 40 percent of the Constituent Assembly’s 217 seats. Its main secular rival, the Progressive Democratic Party, placed fifth. Ennahda said this week it plans to form a coalition government and will seek cooperation from all other parties. The PDP has said it won't participate in a coalition.
Denehy says those early signs of cooperation indicate the situation in Tunisia is different than, say, Egypt.
“In Tunisia, what you’ve seen is a long-standing opposition party -- they were banned by [former President] Ben Ali -- come to the fore because they’ve been building a base,” he says. “They’re a moderate Islamic party.”
Ennahda's win is unlikely to dry up work for political consultants, but an electoral sweep for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt may curtail opportunities.The Muslim Brotherhood's supporters, unlike Ennahda's, won't tolerate the party reaching out for American political expertise.
Moreover in Libya, there are early signs the country’s politics could be dominated by religious groups. Libya's transitional leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil said this week that Sharia law will be the “main source” for legislation.
Still, many consultants remain positive about the region’s democratic future.
"One election does not constitute a trend,” says John Phillips, who was closely observing the election results in Tunisia. His firm, Aristotle, plans to hire political consultants with Arabic-language skills and continue probing for clients in the region.
Tony Marsh, a consultant who has worked extensively in the Middle East, isn’t worried, either. At least not yet.
“The first election isn't determinant of democracy taking root, the second election will -- if there is a second election,” says Marsh.