(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration is again playing down concerns about the rise of Islamist movements in Arab countries in transition, even as developments in Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Egypt indicate that the so-called “Arab spring” may leave Islamists in charge clear across North Africa.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is widely expected to dominate parliamentary elections that began without incident on Monday and will be held in three stages over the next six weeks.
“We regard these elections as a blessed portal through which Egypt shall cross safely to democracy and the transfer of power to the Egyptian people,” the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, said in a statement as the polls opened.
Asked during a briefing about the election and the possibility of Islamists winning, White House press secretary Jay Carney replied, “The fact of the matter is, the democratic process is what’s important.”
“Principles matter to this president, not parties,” he continued. “And we hold whatever party prevails or is represented in the outcome of an election like this – whether it’s in Egypt or elsewhere – our standards have to do with respect for human rights, respect for the democratic process, renunciation of violence, and inclusion of and respect for minorities in the process.”
Carney said it was “unfair to assume that any party that has a religious affiliation cannot adhere to democratic principles. It is simply not the case and has not been borne out by the facts.”
“So, before we judge the disposition of a government or a parliament that is only just beginning to take shape through elections that have started today, I think we need to let the process run its course, continue to espouse our firm support for democratic principles and for civilian control of the government, and then judge the outcome by the actions of those who prevail,” he said.
At the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner adopted a similar stance.
“We’ve been very clear about how we view the Muslim Brotherhood, which is that if they’re committed to the democratic process, we welcome them as a part of the political process,” he said.
Asked about organization’s support for Hamas and its views on the Arab-Israel peace process, Toner said only that “we would call on any Egyptian government to adhere to its previous commitments and agreements.”
‘Saying many of the right things’
In Morocco, the Islamist Justice and Development Party won the most seats in parliamentary elections at the weekend, and will likely produce the country’s next prime minister. Morocco largely sidestepped the wave of protests across the region this year. King Mohammed VI offered political concessions to defuse popular sentiment, although he retains overall power.
A month ago another Islamist party, Ennahda, won elections in Tunisia for a constituent assembly, which will be tasked with drafting a new constitution.
Meanwhile in Libya, a transitional leader’s remark last month about the primacy of Islamic law (shari’a) prompted concern, little allayed by his subsequent assurances that Libyans were “moderate Muslims.”
On Monday, scores of Libyan religious leaders meeting in Tripoli called for the government to ensure that the new constitution would be based on shari’a and that violations of Islam, such as the availability of alcohol, should be prohibited.
(The situation in the remaining North African country, Algeria, is in flux. Protests early this year prompted the government to announce some reforms including constitutional amendments aimed at preventing an uprising. Emboldened, Islamists are flexing their muscles. In October two senior Islamists called on Algerians to demand the closure of all bars and stores selling alcohol. Some 200,000 Algerians were killed in an Islamist insurgency launched in the early 1990s after the army banned the Islamic Salvation Front and canceled elections it was expected to win.)
Asked about the elections in Tunisia and Morocco, Toner said Monday that Ennahda has “been saying many of the right things and it’s been encouraging.”
With regard to the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, he replied, “I think we’ll wait and see how this party actually operates and the things it says publicly, as well as its governance.”
Asked whether the administration was comfortable with “the rise of Islamic fundamentalism gaining the reins of power” in the region, Toner said, “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the premise of your question.”
“I think what we’ve seen is sweeping change across the region; one that we believe is resulting in real democratic reform – the kind of reform we’ve long believed is necessary for many of these countries. And this process continues to play out.”
After meeting with senior European Union officials at the White House on Monday, President Obama told reporters they had “spent a lot of time discussing how we can be supportive of the best elements of what’s taking place in North Africa and the Middle East, continuing to encourage democracy, continuing to encourage transparency, continuing to encourage economic development – because we’ve both agreed that the aspirations that were expressed in Egypt and Tunisia and in Libya are not simply political issues but they’re also economic issues, and that we have to do everything we can to support increased opportunity for young people.”
Monday’s remarks build on earlier ones by administration officials, emphasizing the view that – in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words – “what parties call themselves is less important than what they do.”
“The suggestion that faithful Muslims cannot thrive in a democracy is insulting, dangerous and wrong,” Clinton told a National Democratic Institute awards dinner earlier this month.
What was important, she said, was an adherence to democratic principles.
During a press briefing on Oct. 25, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also disputed a reporter’s premise that there was a “rise of fundamentalism in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.”
“I think what we are seeing is we are seeing newly democratic, newly free people and populations feeling their way forward,” she said.
A day earlier, she responded to a question about shari’a forming the basis of countries’ legal systems by saying that the term shari’a “has a broad application and is understood differently in different places and by different commentators.”
“We’ve seen various Islamic-based democracies wrestle with the issue of establishing rule of law within an appropriate cultural context,” Nuland said. “But the number one thing is that universal human rights, rights for women, rights for minorities, right to due process, right to transparency be fully respected.”