Islamists were in a way lucky for a while. Excluded from the system, they could only deliver Islamist critiques but never had to shoulder the burden of office, the responsibility to make things work.
That has all changed. Islamists are being elected into office and will be assuming the daunting policy problems of their neglected societies. The voting public is excited at the change and will give them a grace period to start improving things. But that period will be limited. Islamists can’t go on winning elections on the basis of pious religious slogans or even anti-Westernism (assuming the West is no longer there with boots on the ground).
Islamists, too, will eventually be chucked out of office if they can’t deliver the goods. And they know it. They will have to make hard policy decisions on complex issues – or they too will soon lose their hard-acquired luster.
In the exhilarating new field of more open Middle Eastern politics, the once oppressed and cornered Islamist spectrum is now opening out, expanding into new space: liberal or conservative, pragmatic or rigid, cautious or bold, skilled or unskilled, politically savvy or not.
We see this spectrum in Tunisia and Egypt today: ultra-conservative Salafis, more moderate Muslim Brothers, a smaller segment of liberal Islamists – all in competition. What’s more, the field is not static. Islamists, now free to play, are evolving rapidly, gaining experience in the face of the hard political and policy decisions ahead of them.
The process has brought some heartening developments. Ultra-orthodox Salafis in Egypt have now surprisingly backed for president the most liberal Islamist candidate in the pack. But should we be surprised? Salafis, too, want to win elections, to back the candidate most likely to win.