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.

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

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.

Instead, vast majorities, whether in Egypt, Jordan, or the Palestinian territories, favor democratic government. They agree that “the will of the people should be the basis of the authority of government,” according to PIPA’s WorldPublicOpinion.org poll in 2008. And in many Muslim countries, most people also support human rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and equal rights for women.

In 2009, the PIPA poll showed that 91 percent of respondents in Egypt and 83 percent in Indonesia (already a democracy) believe that democracy is compatible with Islam – even when compared to wording stating the opposite view, that democracy is not compatible because “it makes people the source of law rather than the Quran.”

Other polls support these findings, however it’s not so simple. Large majorities in the Muslim world also strongly identify themselves as Muslim and welcome the influence of sharia law on government (though it’s worth remembering that many democratic parties in Europe are affiliated with Christianity).

The apparent contradiction shows that the Muslim world is not sure how exactly to fit democracy with Muslim tradition or theology. That’s not surprising, given how little they’ve been allowed to experiment with it.

If one removed the lid of authoritarianism in the Middle East, and allowed parties of all stripes to develop, they would likely break down into three groups: secular parties and Islamist parties on the sides, with parties in the middle trying to bridge the two (such was the party that won the most seats in Iraq’s parliamentary elections last year). That middle spot is where most Muslims sit, and the bridging won’t be easy.

Yes, in a world of free elections in the Middle East, there is a risk that an extreme Islamist party could force its way to power. Or, as is feared with the Muslim Brotherhood, a party that professes to be moderate would change its stripes once it gained power, and then destroy democracy.

But, that pattern doesn’t match the overall hankering for freedom in the Muslim world. Opinion polls and feet on the ground show no desire to exchange a secular despot for a religious one.

What this implies for the Obama administration is not a leap of faith, but a leap of reason – something that the US president excels at. Just as Egyptians and Tunisians have lost their fear to demonstrate, the United States and other democracies must overcome their fear of Middle East democracy.

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