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The Monitor's View

In Egypt and Tunisia, the rise of the Islamists?

The fear of freedom for Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries is that it might give rise to the rule of extreme Islamists, creating Iranian-style theocracies. This fear does not match the reality.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / January 31, 2011

Would democratic freedoms in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world free up Islamists to take over?

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That’s the fear of the United States and other democratic countries, especially Israel.

Or is that fear exaggerated, stoked by a string of authoritarian rulers who need only hold up the extremist threat – the mullahs in Iran, Hamas in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon – to win US support for their regimes?

Events on the ground in Egypt and Tunisia show that perhaps the Islamist boogeyman is more boogey than man in these and other countries. In both countries, it was for secular reasons – not Islamic jihad – that the protests started.

These once-silent masses were motivated by despised despotism, leaders’ lack of respect for the public, and poor prospects for a decent living – standard complaints that have fueled popular uprisings the world over.

Interestingly, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is the only organized and forceful opposition in this most populous Arab country, came late to the protests. It has now joined forces with a loosely grouped secular opposition to back Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former diplomat, to lead the way to change.

Meanwhile, in nearby Tunisia, a key Islamist leader who was exiled in Britain for 20 years has returned to a country jittery about whether Muslim extremists will wheedle their way into power in upcoming elections. But the leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, insists he is a moderate along the lines of the Muslim prime minister of secular Turkey – not a bin Laden or Khomeini.

The rise of another Iran in Egypt would present real dangers to Israeli and US security. Indeed, today Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Egypt could become like Iran after its 1979 revolution.

But here’s the thing: The majority of people in Muslim countries reject the Iranian model, according to Steven Kull, the director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), which tracks public opinion.


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