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By Barry Rubin

Tunisia has scheduled elections for October 23. The National Constituent Assembly will have 218 members and will draw up a new constitution. Remember, by the way, that Tunisia has the most secular-oriented constitution in the Arab world. One wonders what will happen in that regard.

This assembly will also set the rules for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held at some time next year.

Tunisia’s Islamists are weaker than in any other Muslim-majority country in the Middle East. A different problem, however, has developed: the incredible division of other parties. Thus while the Islamist party, Ennahda, is at only about 20 percent, the rest of the vote is divided about 80 parties, no one of which has huge support at this point. To give a sense of this mess, note that there are about 11,000 candidates for these seats, which means about 50 per seat!

That fact could turn a 20 percent Islamist vote into an Islamist landslide. Remember that the Islamists seized control of Turkey with only about 30 percent of the votes. And it gets worse. Imagine when parties are negotiating over the Constitution and the election rules. The Islamists will have extra weight in forming alliances and making deals.

Thus, as Westerners celebrate the joys of democracy in Tunisia — 11,000 candidates! See how the people love freedom! — the Islamists might be using it to seize state power.

What could Western countries be doing? Well, it’s not very nice but in the real world they could be persuading and pressuring moderate anti-Islamists to form alliances and set up joint tickets using funding and other resources.

In the late 1940s, the U.S. government worked covertly to ensure that the Communists didn’t win the elections and take power in France and Italy. That doesn’t sound good if being taught about in an early twenty-first century classroom but the world is a lot better off as a result. Presumably, that isn’t going to happen in this case.

Egypt will be holding parliamentary elections on November 28. There are some parallels with Tunisia—united Islamists; divided leftists, radical nationalists, and moderates — but in Egypt the Islamist vote level looks to be around 30 to 40 percent. There is little doubt that Islamists would emerge as the single largest party there.

But the military has just pushed through an agreement that many political parties have signed though it angered a lot of their members. According to the plan, after elections for the People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament, and the Shura Council, the upper house, the two would choose a committee to draft a new constitution between April 2012 and April 2013. Only afterward would a presidential election be held, which means the military junta would continue to hold executive authority.

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition has formed a Turkey-based (note the connection) Syrian National Council headed by Burhan Ghalioun, who is an academic who lives in Paris. Members include Mohammed Riyad al-Shaqfa of the Muslim Brotherhood The 29-member leadership is described as including the following: six from Local Coordination Committees, five Brotherhood and tribal representatives, four from the Damascus Declaration and four for Ghalioun‘s liberal group, five independents, four Kurds, and a Christian, he said.

This is a measure of the Brotherhood’s far weaker status in Syria as compared to Egypt. The proportionally low representation of Christians is presumably related to that group’s tendency to support the regime due to fear of the Islamists. The Kurds have not been enthusiastic about this new council because they believe the Muslim Brotherhood has become too powerful — perhaps they know about hidden Islamists disguised among the other members? — and worry about Arab nationalists overwhelming them.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com

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