After belatedly supporting a wave of democratic revolts in North Africa, Western capitals had little choice but to endorse the victory of Islamist parties, but they remain cautious.
Polls in Tunisia and Morocco were won by Islamists, Islamist influence is stronger in Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime and this week’s election in Egypt is expected to see gains by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Western powers had supported the region's former autocratic regimes, believing them a bulwark against violent Islamist extremism, and are now nervously reaching out to their successors with offers of financial aid.
“We can only support the process in place, so long as the result comes democratically, through the ballot box. We have to play along and show both openness and vigilance,” a Brussels-based diplomat told AFP.
“But we shouldn’t kid ourselves: we’re worried. It’s obvious there is going to be trouble in several countries in the region, like Libya, Egypt and Algeria,” he added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Countries like France and the United States were caught flat-footed by the “Arab Spring” revolts, realizing late in the day that autocratic clients such as Tunisia’s Zine ElAbidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were doomed.
France tried to make amends by sponsoring the Libyan revolution, and Washington has spoken in favor of democracy in the region, but the new Islamist-led governments have every reason to be suspicious of the West.
Likewise, Western powers are watching the advance of political Islam with concern. They fear they might be less willing to collaborate in the war against international militant groups, or might threaten women's rights.
“Everything’s risky in a revolution, but I think we must be trusting while on our guard,” said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.
World powers have promised a total of 80 billion dollars to support the Arab world’s new post-revolutionary governments, but little has been spent or even assigned, and officials say it will not be handed out unconditionally.
Juppe said France’s contribution would be tied to the new regimes' support for sexual equality and respect of democratic rule -- comments that drew the ire of Tunisia’s victorious Ennahda Islamist party.
Washington is also reserving judgment.
“I think we’ll wait and see how this party actually operates and the things it says publicly, as well as its governance,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, after Morocco’s Justice and Development Party won the vote.
“It’s more important not what a government or what a particular party is called, but what it does and whether it operates according to democratic standards,” he warned.
The final result of Egypt’s historic first post-Mubarak election is not yet known, although it seems likely the party led by the powerful and well-organized Muslim Brotherhood will win, but U.S. observers hailed the vote itself as well-run.
“We should not stigmatize the Muslim Brothers or the Islamist parties en bloc. They're not devils. There are extremists among them, we don't want that, but there are perfectly moderate people,” Juppe said.
In Brussels, EU officials are preparing to adapt their regional policy to deal with the new regimes.
“For the moment,” the diplomat said. “We’re in a sort of trial period during which different forces -- radicals, moderate Islamists and civil society -- are trying to find a way to work together.”
Pascal Boniface, head of France’s Institute of International and Strategic Relations, said he was impressed so far by the West’s “prudent and pragmatic” response to the Islamist breakthrough.
“Compared to the time when the very word Islam was enough to paralyze all reasoning and trigger great waves of fear, that's a positive thing,” he said.