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Two men with the fingers painted in the colours of the Syrian flag show the V-sign as they pose in front of a huge image of President Bashar al-Assad during a rally by thousands supporters for their leader who is facing unprecedented domestic pressure amid a wave of dissent, in central Damascus on March 29, 2011. (ANWAR AMRO/Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)
Two men with the fingers painted in the colours of the Syrian flag show the V-sign as they pose in front of a huge image of President Bashar al-Assad during a rally by thousands supporters for their leader who is facing unprecedented domestic pressure amid a wave of dissent, in central Damascus on March 29, 2011. (ANWAR AMRO/Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

Time of revolution in Arab world provides opportunity for Islamists Add to ...

The pro-democracy upheavals sweeping the Arab world have largely been started by young secular Arabs looking for political empowerment, equitable opportunity and dignity.

But while Islamist movements for the most part weren't at the forefront of the revolutions, the upset of authoritarian regimes is providing opportunities for Islamists to flourish. Here's a look at some of the fronts on which they are making gains, and the implications.

Syria: The most to gain

The late president Hafez al-Assad was so fixated on the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood that he didn't hesitate to act when members of the movement staged an uprising in the city of Hama in 1982. The president ordered a large section of the city levelled and thousands of Brotherhood supporters (and innocent civilians) were buried underneath.

Syria's security forces were unleashed to keep close watch on the movement, and Brotherhood leaders fled into exile outside the country, where they mostly remain to this day.

Bashar al-Assad faces a similar threat, especially since Sunni fundamentalists view as heretical the Alawite sect from which the al-Assads and most military leaders hail. But the younger Mr. al-Assad has taken a different approach. He has encouraged young Islamists and religiosity has become increasingly evident throughout the country in the past decade. The President's support, however, comes at a price: The Islamist leadership is expected to police its congregations and ensure there is no political activity being carried out.

"The regime's support for the Islamists is not genuine," said Adnan abu Odeh, a former adviser to Jordan's kings. "When the unrest started, they immediately blamed the Islamists, even though there was no basis for the accusation."

"The Brotherhood has the most to gain by the lifting of political restrictions in Syria," said Barry Rubin, author of The Truth About Syria, and there's no doubt this was a big factor in Mr. al-Assad's thinking this week when he disappointed many people in announcing that any political reforms would come at a painfully slow pace.

Libya: On the front line

"Islamists are proliferating all across North Africa," said Alastair Crooke, a former MI6 officer and author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution, "and Libya is no exception."

Their numbers are not huge in Libya, most observers agree, and the majority of active Muslims prefer a brand of Sufi Islam that eschews extremism. But some of the Islamist old guard - a lot of whom are on the front line against the Gadhafi forces - were mujahedeen fighting in Afghanistan against the Russians and some, more recently, against NATO forces.

Many of the younger Islamists are followers of the salafist trend, an extremist fundamentalist movement that is expanding in far greater proportions than the Muslim Brotherhood or other more moderate movements.

The trend is to the more extreme, and Islamist numbers will only grow in the absence of an authoritarian strong man such as Moammar Gadhafi.

Egypt: Part of the establishment

Outlawed for half a century, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has come in from the cold. They've come so far that when Egypt's newly appointed interim prime minister addressed the crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square recently, he had the Muslim Brotherhood's former parliamentary bloc leader at his side.

This week, the ruling military council announced that religious parties will not be allowed to run for office themselves, but there's nothing stopping them from creating their own, distinct parties to run. The Brotherhood is expected to field at least two parties: one appealing to the old guard, the other to the youth.

But so careful is the Brotherhood that it says neither party will contest more than 30 per cent of the seats. The Brotherhood is not seeking power, nor will it run a candidate for president, they say. But as the major opposition, they'll be powerful enough to influence the agenda.

As well, the Brotherhood realizes that whoever next runs Egypt will not be able to meet the people's lofty aspirations - they won't have the money to do what needs to be done.

With the numbers of salafist extremists growing, and if the government fails to deliver what the people want, the Islamists hope that people will then turn to the Brotherhood to take charge.

Tunisia: Nowhere to go but up

Outlawed for more than 20 years, the Islamic Renaissance Party has enjoyed a renaissance since the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The party's exiled leader, Rashid al-Ghannushi, returned from France last month and pledged his party's devotion to democracy. At this point, it's unknown, says Mr. Crooke, just how much support it can garner in this Western-oriented country.

The only thing for certain is that now that they are no longer banned and persecuted, the Islamists have nowhere to go but up.

Jordan: Loyal opposition

"There's no question," said Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Herzliya, Israel, "if the regime in Jordan is overthrown, the Islamists will take over."

"Fortunately," he added, "the scale of protests shows no sign of being able to overthrow the King."

Adnan abu Odeh, the former royal adviser and ex-ambassador to the United Nations, agrees. "The Islamists in Jordan aren't trying to change the regime; they just want to reform it."

Maybe so, but the Islamists are behind the effort to reduce the absolute monarchy enjoyed by King Abdullah to a reigning monarchy that will have less power and will defer to a democratically elected parliament.

Who can quarrel with that? Except that it will be the well-organized and relatively moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood that will enjoy the electoral rewards.

Palestinian Territories

While not involved directly in any of the region's uprisings, Hamas has been a huge beneficiary of them.

Hosni Mubarak's departure from Egypt has meant that those ruling that country are much less opposed to Hamas, an offshoot of their own Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, believes it will able to import more weapons, more fighters and may enjoy a completely open border with Egypt - all of which will strengthen the Islamist organization.

Hamas even is benefiting by the concern now felt by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian leader is aware that he cannot enter negotiations with Israel for fear of fomenting a popular uprising against him for any concessions he may give. Instead, Mr. Abbas has preferred to launch an initiative to reconcile his PLO movement with Hamas, a more popular step that is further strengthening the Islamist organization.

The only cloud on Hamas's horizon is the growth in the number of salafi jihadists who may, ultimately, challenge Hamas for the leadership in battling Israel.

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