The pro-democracy upheavals that have rocked the Arab world may have been started by secular young Arabs, but it may well be Islamic movements that will finish them.
This notion runs counter to the idea that the Arab Spring of 2011 has little to do with Islam and that Western liberal values are back in vogue.
The Islam-is-down, secularism-is-up theme is one of three common notions about what the aftermath of the upheavals will bring. The second assumption is that greater democracy will emerge. The third is that, as far as the two non-Arab states that compete for influence in the region are concerned, the Iranian regime’s fortunes are looking brighter, and Israel’s much darker.
It’s too soon to tell what exactly will emerge from this remarkable revolutionary period, but it’s not too soon to question some of these popular notions.
Don’t count Islamists out
Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down as president of Egypt two weeks ago, yet the biggest protest rally of them all took place after he was gone. Last Friday’s massive demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square showed that the people of Egypt are concerned their goals of greater empowerment might be hijacked by the armed forces now in command.
It also showed just how religious the people protesting really are. When it came time to pray, the vast majority did so, but the square and adjacent streets were so packed there wasn’t enough room for all of them to touch their foreheads to the ground as is the practice. Instead, many were obliged to touch their foreheads to the backs of the persons kneeling in front of them.
“I’ve never seen that before,” marvelled Karim Alrawi, an Egyptian playwright and human-rights activist, who watched the scene from the roof of an adjacent building.
During the early stages of Egypt’s popular uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed but best organized movement in the country, was nowhere to be seen. Gradually, however, its presence increased.
Small numbers took part in the protest’s “day of rage.” Then when the protesters set up camp in Tahrir Square, it was the Brotherhood that took over security, checking everyone who entered for weapons. They were instrumental in fighting off pro-Mubarak thugs who attacked people in the square, and in setting up first-aid stations for the injured. They even cleaned up in the square, methodically picking up litter, right down to cigarette butts.
This week, the movement announced it plans to establish not one but two new parties to run for office – one for older established supporters, another for the young. In fact, said Esam el-Erian, a member of the movement’s executive bureau, he expects there will four Brotherhood-linked parties by the time an election is held.
They want people to have the widest range of choices within the Islamist tent.
“It would be wrong to count out the Islamist movements, as many people are,” says Alastair Crooke, the Beirut-based director of Conflicts Forum. “This is not a post-Islamic era we are embarking on,” he said, “but a new chapter of Islamism.”
The divisions within Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that are leading to several different parties are an example of a new kind of openness in the Islamist movements, said Mr. Crooke, author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution.
To be sure, in countries where there have been elections, Islamist parties increased in size – Algeria in 1991, Turkey in the 1990s and 2000s, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and the Palestinian territories in 2006.
With real freedoms, religious parties can expect to do reasonably well not only in Egypt, but also in Tunisia where Islamist parties had previously been illegal, as well as in Algeria, Libya and Bahrain.
This is a worrying fact, said Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Herzliya, Israel. He points to the return to Egypt of the exiled Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi as the reason why so many packed Tahrir Square last week, and the reason for concern.