Islamists' rise from chaos of Arab Spring alarms West - 01-22-2012, 02:19 AM
By Hannah Allam
Published: Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 12A
CAIRO – Almost a year ago, senior leaders of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood gathered in an apartment overlooking the massive protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square. It was the 18th day of the uprising that would bring down President Hosni Mubarak.
The elder statesmen of the long-outlawed Islamist group scanned the crowds below, making sure that their young activists weren't using religious chants or banners; they'd issued strict orders not to make the revolution seem Islamist in nature.
Satisfied, the leaders prayed together at sundown that Feb. 11, then they turned on the TV to see the vice president announcing Mubarak had resigned after 30 years in power.
"That was the moment," recalled Mahmoud Ghozlan, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's governing council, closing his eyes to savor the memory.
As ecstatic protesters celebrated below, the men in the apartment instantly realized that, with Mubarak gone, the Muslim Brotherhood's decades of persecution were over, and the group finally had a clear path to political power. They sprang into action, using their long-standing service networks to protect neighborhoods, provide discounted food, form a political party and, ultimately, win nearly half the seats in a parliament that will convene Monday for the first time.
In the year since the start of a wave of revolts that brought down three Middle Eastern rulers and left two others tottering, the ascension of the Islamists has emerged as the dominant narrative.
The United States and other Western powers – along with Arab liberals and religious minorities – are watching with alarm as conservative Muslim politicians have filled the power vacuums left by the rebellions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. They fear that Taliban-style religious extremism will replace the old order's secular autocracy; of particular concern are the future of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and the possible creation of havens for al-Qaida-linked militants in Libya.
Supporters of the Islamists say the extremist threat is exaggerated and that no other political force is as trusted, disciplined or efficient to guide these scarred nations toward democracy. They note that across North Africa, Islamists are forging alliances with political rivals, meeting with Western envoys, courting foreign investors, and spending millions of dollars on sophisticated electoral campaigns.
"At some point, something happens to blow the lid off tyranny, and that's what we saw this past year with these revolutions," said Ghozlan, the Muslim Brotherhood official. "Islamists are the new reality for this region, and the West must recognize that and engage in dialogue."
Already, American diplomats in Cairo have reversed an old policy against direct talks with the Muslim Brotherhood and meet with the group's top leaders, a sign that Washington finally acknowledges the Islamist group's influence in the Arab world's most populous nation.
Tunisia's Islamist Nahdah party swept that nation's first post-revolution polls, and the Muslim Brotherhood branch in Libya is expected to be a force in elections this summer. The interim governments of both countries have good relations with the United States and Europe – especially Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi was toppled with NATO intervention.
Yemeni Islamist groups are still key to protesters' ongoing battle to unseat authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and a Yemeni activist with an Islamist background was among the three women who received the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011.
While the extent of Islamist involvement in the Syrian revolt is unknown, the exiled leaders of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood voice fervent support for the uprising via Al-Jazeera and other satellite channels. So far, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Nahdah in Tunisia and other mainstream Islamists throughout the region have offered assurances to their critics, treading carefully so as not to squander their newfound authority and freedom.
While they make little secret of their long-term goal of establishing Islamic states, analysts said, for now they're willing to strike shrewd deals with non-Islamist blocs and focus on collective grievances such as unemployment, inflation and the lack of security.
"As this is the first time for Islamists to move from opposition seats to lead the country, they are very cautious not to frighten their internal or external adversaries," said Khalil al Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at Durham University in the United Kingdom.
The wild card, however, is the literalist Salafist movement, which is popular throughout the region. Arabic-language news reports say wealthy sympathizers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funneling cash to Salafist groups in transitional countries.
The Salafists are becoming a more visible constituency in Tunisia and Libya, with their black flags hanging from storefronts and a noticeable increase in fully veiled women in the streets, stoking fears that the moderate Islamist agenda could harden with the rise of the fundamentalists.
Egypt's Salafists, who captured a surprising quarter of parliamentary seats, hope to push the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood to the right by rallying the conservative base behind the immediate application of strict Shariah law.
Islamists' rise from chaos of Arab Spring alarms West - Sacramento News - Local and Breaking Sacramento News | Sacramento Bee
|alarms, arab, chaos, islamists, rise, spring, west|