We have reached a transformative period in the Middle East, complete with the unpredictability and instability that any tipping point brings. The Arab Spring is often framed solely as an uprising by populations challenging oppressive regimes, but the conflict within the Arab Spring is equally as important. It is absolutely critical that the G8 and other countries and institutions that have pledged $40 billion to support the Arab Spring understand this.
If the West does not strategically support the non-Islamists within the Arab Spring, the movement will befriend the Islamists. The governments that have held back the Muslim Brotherhood will collapse — or oversee reforms that give them unprecedented influence. The Islamists may not win outright majorities in future democratic parliaments, but they could still hold enough seats to exercise veto power over any decision.
Raising its expectations in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will contest half of the seats during the September elections. The Brotherhood is becoming increasingly active in Libya, too, and now seeks to “coordinate the position of the opposition” in Syria. The Algerian government, meanwhile, is releasing 7,000 Islamist prisoners. The major opposition party in Yemen is Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. One of its leaders is blacklisted by the U.S. for his ties to al-Qaeda. The party itself favors a morality police. The picture isn’t any prettier in Tunisia, where the leader of the largest Islamist party is predicting the destruction of Israel.
The Arab Spring is opening up decisive opportunities for the Islamists, but it also gives a platform to non-Islamists who were also silenced. Until now, the competing voices were the oppressive regimes and the Islamist opposition, both of which sought to make the secular democratic forces invisible. For the first time, political openness will permit a contest of ideas to be waged. The natural human urge to criticize, improve, and innovate will result in challenges to the Islamists as people seek new alternatives. Even theologically, the innate tendency to conform religion to one’s own needs and wants will promote a much-needed, if perilous, debate.
It is a mistake to dismiss the Islamist elements within the Arab Spring. It is also a mistake, though, to assume the Islamists are unrivaled. In Egypt, the polls show that the Muslim Brotherhood is in second place behind the secular Wafd Party, despite the Brotherhood’s huge organizational advantages. Amr Moussa, an enemy of Iran, has a wide lead for the presidency. The protests on May 27 against the military regime were boycotted by the Brotherhood, but the liberals still had a strong showing. And if all else fails, there’s hope in the declaration by the military rulers that they won’t allow “another Khomeini” or “extremist factions” to come to power.