Why does the transition to liberal democratic politics present such intractable problems in the Arab world? Just as liberalism appeared to triumph in much of the rest of the world, most of the Arab world retreated from it. In the last five years there has been a subtle but palpable reversal of the 1980s trend toward a liberal politics. The most spectacular setback was the January 1992 military coup in Algeria that led to cancellation of the results of free and fair elections, suspension of Parliament, dismissal of the president, and what now looks like a low-grade civil war. Elsewhere, press censorship was tightened, as in Tunisia; elections more carefully manipulated, as in Egypt; and indeed, only poor Jordan seems to offer much hope to the proponents of liberalization.
What happened? The short answer is that after Islamist political movements began to avail themselves of the newly created political “spaces,” the political elites changed their minds about allowing them (and therefore anyone else) freedom to speak and assemble. This presents us with a second question: why was it Islamists—rather than secular liberals, labor unions, or big business—who so quickly filled the space provided by political relaxation? Why are the Islamists so effective in advancing the cause of political opposition?...
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