10:30am

Fri February 4, 2011
Anti-Government Protests Roil Egypt

With Upheaval, How Large Is The Opening For Islam?

When Sheik Rachid Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia on Sunday after 22 years in exile, more than 1,000 supporters turned out to greet him at the airport.

For some outside the Arab world, the image had an uncomfortable resonance. Two weeks after the shah fled Iran in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned home from a long exile, shoving aside secular democrats who had been involved in a provisional government and establishing a theocracy that has held sway ever since.

Commentators and politicians in some corners have openly worried about a repeat. The current state of upheaval and mass protests could lead in time, they warn, to a renewed rise of political Islam.

"The sources of the instability, the central source, does not stem from radical Islam," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday. "But it is true that in a situation of chaos, an organized Islamist entity can take over a country. It's happened in Iran and other places as well."

But most academic and policy experts say an Iran-style scenario is far-fetched for Egypt and other Arab countries that are now seeing uprisings. There's no doubt that Islamist parties will play a role in transitional governments and open elections, should they occur.

The Islamist parties, however, are not the dominant force behind protests in any country outside of Jordan. And, should they attain power in any country, their platforms are more likely to resemble that of the moderate Islamist party that rules Turkey in a secular fashion than those of the ayatollahs in Iran.

Pledging Moderation

Ghannouchi's Ennahda party, in fact, compares its own agenda with that of Turkey's AK Party. In recent interviews, Ghannouchi has insisted on the importance of pluralism and multi-party democracy.

At the Tunis airport, his supporters held up signs with messages such as, "No to extremism, yes to moderate Islam!"

In Tunisia, the Islamist parties "don't represent more than 20 percent of voters," says Noureddine Jebnoun, a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

"The Islamists will not have the majority in Tunisia or Algeria or even within Egypt with the Brotherhood," Jebnoun says, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that had long been the leading opposition force against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "They will belong to a coalition government. That's it."

Most countries in the Muslim world, including the monarchies, allow for electoral participation. But few are considered true democracies.

In Egypt, as elsewhere, opposition parties are often suppressed. In last fall's elections, none of the candidates put up by the Muslim Brotherhood were able to win. Five years earlier, they had taken more than half the parliamentary seats they contested.

Mubarak's regime has long insisted that it stands as a bulwark against radical Islamism.

"Playing the Islamist card" has been central to its own narrative about its legitimacy, says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.

That's one reason why the Muslim Brotherhood has been keeping a relatively low profile during Egypt's current unrest, Hamid says.

"It doesn't mean they're weak," he says. "It's by design. The Brotherhood doesn't want to have a high profile during this phase, because it knows the regime could use that to hurt the broader movement."

That's one reason why the Muslim Brotherhood is backing, as strongly as any other faction, the idea of a transitional government led by Mohammed ElBaradei, the decidedly secular former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Brotherhood's Future Role

Another reason may be that the group, which has long been the primary opposition force against Mubarak, would be unlikely to win a majority even in an open election.

"If free and fair elections are permitted, in which a variety of political forces participate," says Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations at Boston University, "I think the Brotherhood is likely to see 25 to 30 percent of the vote, which gives them a real possibility of being players in the game."

As a reporter in Egypt in the 1990s, Geneive Abdo became convinced that if political change were ever to come there, it would ride in on the backs of the Brotherhood.

"Back then, the Islamists were enormously powerful," says Abdo, who is now an analyst with the National Security Network and the Century Foundation. "I have always maintained that this is the future of the country."

But Abdo has since changed her mind. "Iran in no way is ever going to be a model for anything that happens in Egypt," she says. "The Brotherhood will be part of a transitional government, but the time when they seemed most powerful, that period is over, and we're onto a new phase."

Triggering A Counter-Reaction

Islamist candidates fared quite well in an earlier experiment in Arab democracy, winning a majority of seats in the first round of parliamentary voting in Algeria in 1990.

That triggered a civil war that lasted eight years and killed up to 200,000 people. Algeria's president announced Thursday that he will soon lift a state of emergency that has been in place for more than 20 years.

The memory of that conflict — as well as world reaction to the success of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian elections — will lead some Islamist parties to seek a low profile, Hamid argues.

"They understand that the world isn't ready for Islamists," he says. "They don't want to mobilize the world community against an emerging democratic experiment."

Islamist parties might not shy from power, but most understand that they're playing a long game. Hamid says they believe autocracies don't last forever and that their day will come.

"They have a general sense that history is moving in their direction, that history is going to give them a victory," says Ian Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Islamists believe they will prevail over time — over the next 30 to 40 years, if not in the next election, he says. They also understand that even Muslims who reject the notion of religious parties largely share their values.

"Every time we do surveys, comparing Islamists with those who say keep Islam out of politics, there's very little difference," says Mark Tessler, director of the International Institute at the University of Michigan. "They're somewhat more conservative on some issues, but not very different than anybody else."

Comparisons With Other Cultures

Figuring out whatever part Islamist parties will ultimately play within a democratic framework would be part of the long adjustment countries shifting away from dictatorships would have to make, says George R. Trumbull IV, a Dartmouth College historian.

"I'm certain a form of political Islam will get seats if there are elected parliaments in Tunisia or Egypt or Yemen," Trumbull says. "The real question then is how will democratic institutions deal with that. How do you allow disagreement in places where disagreement wasn't allowed?"

Lustick, the Penn political scientist, compares the possible role Islamic parties might play in nascent Arab democracies to that played by Christian Democratic parties in Europe a century or so ago.

"They became less religious and more political and helped build strong democracies in all these countries," he says. "Democracies domesticate religious groups to become political players. That's how it works."

Factions of some Islamist groups in Algeria, Egypt and elsewhere have engaged in political violence and terror. But Tessler, the University of Michigan political scientist, says most Islamist parties aren't militant or fundamentalist in the way that a lot of people in the U.S. expect. Instead, he argues, they're more akin to religious conservatives here.

"They'll play that role," he says. "They're not about theologies or subverting democracies. They're about advancing a social-conservative agenda, which ought to be familiar to Americans."

Lustick draws a comparison with another society.

"Ultimately," he says, "they would like to see Islamicized governments with a role for sharia [or Islamic law] not as the sole source of authority, but the way Judaism is in Israel, as the guiding force in personal life." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.