An email from a Tunisian organisation I've never heard of landed in my inbox this week, with a warning about the disastrous consequences of an Islamist success in today's election in the country which launched the Arab Spring and is holding its first democratic poll. A victory for Al Nahda, the Islamist party, would frighten investors, discourage tourism and throw thousands of Tunisians out of work, warned the ‘Citizens for a free world' who signed the document. To illustrate the doomed Al Nahda-led future, they included a video clip. With a heart-rending melody playing, an elderly Tunisian mourns his life in ‘frustration and misery' and ‘the loss of 400 years of civilisation.'
Similar scare tactics are likely in Egypt next month, as the country nears its own post-revolution election on November 28. Liberal parties, old and new, are already telling anyone willing to listen of the catastrophic implications of a strong performance by the Muslim Brotherhood.
After the season of revolt in north Africa comes the season of fear. To the surprise of westerners and the relief of Arab liberals, Islamists were not the most prominent protesters in the youth revolutions changing the face of the Arab world. But, as the most organised opposition forces to autocratic regimes, they have an advantage in the first free elections.
The stakes in these polls are huge: the assemblies that emerge will draft new constitutions, shaping the political order for years to come. The poll in Egypt is the most important, given Cairo's historic impact on the rest of the Arab world.
Ill-prepared and still new to the political scene, liberal parties are fighting with all the tools they can muster. The Islamists, moreover, are making themselves an easy target. Torn between reassuring the outside world and pandering to the most conservative parts of society, their discourse is often ambiguous, fully supportive of civil liberties on the one hand but promising stricter Islamic rule on the other.
Of course many are willing to be convinced of the worst about Islamists: for decades, dictators fooled their western allies into believing that the Islamist opposition was synonymous with extremism and their own regimes the only guarantee of stability.
But as the political scene is liberalised, it is important to distinguish between Islamist groups. Those most demonised in the past — Al Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt — in fact could emerge as parties of the centre in conservative Arab societies, between the liberals and the ultraconservative Salafis.
A tradition of political engagement has taught the mainstream Islamists of Al Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood pragmatism, a lesson yet to be absorbed by the Salafi newcomers. Salafi movements, which look to Saudi Arabia's clerics as a model, were repressed under the old regimes, and are only now emerging from the shadows. In Egypt, participation in November's elections is already forcing them into uncomfortable compromises. Officials from the newly formed Nour party lament that they must field women candidates to comply with electoral rules, insisting women are suited only for certain roles in society.
The role of religion in politics has dominated debate in the Middle East for decades — in the 1990s, Algeria's army intervened to stop an Islamist party winning an election and drove the country into more than decade of civil war. With more freedom after the Arab Spring, however, the debate about religious parties is polarising society in an unprecedented way.
Secular concerns about Islamists' influence, whether moderate or radical, are understandable. Islamists have the benefit of a simple message to win votes, namely that they are following the true path of Islam with its promise of social justice. But it is their ability to organise and relate with populations in need that also gives them a political edge.
Talk to people in impoverished neighbourhoods in Cairo and they will tell how the Brotherhood set up stands outside schools to sell notebooks at low prices, and fruit stalls during Ramadan that offered dates at a fraction of the market price. Liberal parties are not mentioned because, unlike the Islamists, they lack an infrastructure of charities.
Yet, for all the skills of the Muslim Brotherhood, its party, Freedom and Justice, is not acting like a winner. True, the weight of Islamist political parties in the Arab world is assumed to be around 30 per cent of the vote. But there has rarely been a truly free election to test the assumption.
Back in 2005, when the Mubarak regime briefly flirted with a political opening, independent candidates affiliated with the Brotherhood won one out of two constituencies in the parliamentary elections — albeit on a very low turnout. Brotherhood officials admit that with popular enthusiasm and a much wider choice for voters (their rivals now include the Salafi Nour party), their attempt to capture up to 35 per cent of seats in parliament is uncertain.
The Brotherhood's unity has also frayed, with some leading figures defecting to start their own group, and a group of youth active in the revolution forming their own party.
However big their share of the vote, the Islamists must recognise that they cannot monopolise the drafting of the constitution, which has to reflect a national consensus and enshrine guarantees that the electorate can vote people in and out of office. But for all the importance of these first Arab Spring elections, the priority — for liberals, Islamists, and western governments — should be their process and conduct. It is establishing the foundations of a new system that will give liberals the space to build a more solid base of support even if their immediate performance is disappointing.
By Roula Khalaf