In Bahrain, the royal family is hard at work trying to make the Shiite opposition look like an Iranian puppet. The hardline Haq group has hinted at requesting Iranian intervention to help evict Saudi forces propping up the royal family, but the largest Shiite party and others have publicly demanded that Iran stay out. A spokesman for al-Wefaq flatly says, “We don’t want the Velayat-e-Faqih in Bahrain,” and even goes so far as to say, “Let the Palestinians solve their own problems.” The chairman of the Bahrain Transparency Society says, “We want genuine democracy, not clerical.” A recent poll found that only 25 percent of the Shiites want Sharia law and almost 75 percent want parliamentary democracy where non-Islamist parties participate. Nearly half of the Sunnis oppose Sharia law.
The Syrian regime has likewise tried to paint its opponents as Islamic extremists. Protesters in Homs reacted to this accusation by chanting, “We want freedom, not Salafism.” The flags of Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia are being set on fire by demonstrators. Dr. Barry Rubin estimates Islamist support in Syria to be about 15 percent and concludes the country “isn’t likely to see an Islamist takeover.” By silencing the voices of non-Islamist liberals, the Assad regime has skillfully promoted the illusion that Islamist rule is the only alternative.
Yemeni President Saleh is following the same strategy. His government has coddled the Salafists and allowed al-Qaeda to gain ground. Now he uses the group’s advance to portray his rule as essential in order to stop it. The Yemeni opposition is blaming Saleh for al-Qaeda’s rise in the country. It says that it would destroy the “nuisance” in months. The Muslim Brotherhood (and the Salafists) make up a major component of the six-party opposition coalition called the Joint Meetings Party, but secularists are also included. Their alliance will only last as long as Saleh is in power.
Libya is another case where there are allies and adversaries among the opposition. The press has been giving lots of attention to a rebel commander named Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group arrested in Pakistan after fighting in Afghanistan. He says about 25 of his 300 fighters fought in Iraq. Obviously, the presence of Islamists among the rebels is frightening. However, U.S. intelligence believes that they are a small minority in a diverse, mostly secular opposition. The rebels are quick to reject claims that they have a relationship with al-Qaeda. The vice chairman of the Transitional Council unequivocally says, “There is no place for an Islamic state in Libya.”
It is important to remember that democracy is a process, not an endpoint. The region will move forward incrementally, with Islamists sparring with the liberals and secularists every step of the way. The $40 billion pledged by the G8 can help spur the democratic process, but it cannot guarantee its success. The Arab Spring can either be a friend to the Islamists or an enemy. The West’s support should be directed towards making it the latter.