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Egypt Poised To Take Arab World In New Direction

Khaled Fahmy, history professor at the American University in Cairo, stands in front of crowds in Egypt's Tahrir Square.
Khaled Fahmy, history professor at the American University in Cairo, stands in front of crowds in Egypt's Tahrir Square.
Khaled Fahmy, a professor at the American University in Cairo, checked his mobile phone as he was leaving a meeting on January 25, 2011. Five missed calls from Mom. Something must be wrong.

Minutes later, the young academic was tearing his way to Cairo's Tahrir Square, where the police were trying to arrest his young nephew for taking part in the first wave of historic protests that ultimately saw President Hosni Mubarak removed from power.

What he witnessed there "is ingrained in my memory," he says. "These were truly historic days. It was amazing to see, especially on January 28, the beginning of the collapse of the security forces, security forces that have been intimidating and terrorizing the Egyptian people for decades. It was an amazing moment to see them retreating in the face of a determined people, a people who decided, finally, to stand up for their dignity and to say 'no.'"

The Egyptian uprising, which followed the ousting of Tunisia's leader in December 2010, triggered a wave of unrest throughout North Africa and the Arab world. Antigovernment protests continue in Syria, Yemen, and other Arab countries going into 2012, but many analysts see the ongoing political struggle under way in Egypt, the Middle East's most populous country, as pivotal.

Steven Cook, author of "The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square," believes the country's stability is key for the region.

"I think the fear is that, with Egypt being as important as it is, that its trajectory be something quite different -- that the kind of promise, and hope, of Tahrir Square in January and February 2011 is thwarted," he says. "And either some new kind of authoritarian political system emerges, or some sort of prolonged period of instability and uncertainty, punctuated by periods of violence, I think, would have not only a devastating effect on Egypt, but, I think, a devastating effect on the rest of the region."

Council of Foreign Relations fellow Ed Husain is more optimistic, saying he hopes "the trajectory that we've seen in the Arab world, that the process of freedom, democracy, liberty, rights for minorities, rights for Christians and others in the region, continue."

"This is what the spirit of the revolution is all about," he says.

'Islamic Modernists'

Others attribute a different spirit to Egypt's revolutionary fervor. Law professor Mohammad Fadel of the University of Toronto credits the revolutions there and in Tunisia to the development of Islamic political thought rather than Western-style democratic ideals.

"Islamic modernism sort of represents the common denominator of the political moment in the Arab world, because unfortunately, after World War I and after World War II, as Arab states gained nominal independence, they were unable to institutionalize the antiauthoritarian politics that was the goal of Islamic modernist political thought," Fadel explains.

"And so, for the last 50 or 60 years, the Arab world has been sort of in a state of 'deep freeze' in terms of political thinking because, you know, the first prerequisite for -- you know, if you think in an evolutionary sense -- of a liberal state, of achieving a liberal state, is to first, you know, control the power of the absolute ruler. And because that was never achieved, that remains to be the primary goal."

Fadel goes back to 19th-century Arab political thinking to bolster his argument, tracing its development up to radical reforms backed by prominent Egyptian scholar Rashid Rida at the end of World War I.

Rida argued for an Islamic system of governance fully reconciled with secular jurisprudence, even supporting laws that would directly contradict revealed law, Shari'a, provided they advanced the common good. Thus, Fadel writes in a recent essay, "Islamic modernists are politically more comfortable with secular political movements than they are with other configurations."

But the distinction between liberal Islamic parties and fundamentalist varietals can be murky, with various personal alliances and hoped-for political coalitions muddying the waters. In Tunisia, a leading member of the ruling moderate Islamist party recently sparked controversy by calling for the revival of a caliphate, or Islamic state.

...And Other 'Threats'

Recent events suggest other Islamic groups may be more politically threatening to religious moderates than secular platforms.

In Egypt, a new coalition called El Nour (The Light) led by the Salafis, an ultraconservative branch of fundamentalist Islam, secured a quarter of the vote in the first round of the November parliamentary elections.

"What we're witnessing is a tripartite division in Egyptian society and the Egyptian political scene," Fahmy explains, breaking it down to "the Mubarak regime, what remains of it, mostly represented by the military; and the Islamists, who are themselves split between the [Islamic movement] Muslim Brotherhood and the newcomers to the scene, the Salafis; and the Tahrir people, what one can call the Tahrir people -- that is the liberals, the youth, the leftists, who have triggered this momentous change back in January. And these three parties of these three blocs are competing for power; they're trying to find a common ground on which to fight each other, and that is very difficult now."

Husain, whose book "The Islamist" details the five years he spent as an Islamic fundamentalist, is concerned by what he's seen in Egypt recently.

He warns of a "rising trend of Salafism in Egypt," and raises concerns over the release from jail people convicted on charges of terrorist activity. "There's a risk that that whole mind-set -- combined with failure at the ballot box-- that we may witness the outbreaks of Islamist extremism and terrorism," he says.

But fear of an unhappy end to the Arab unrest undercuts what history professor Fahmy sees as its greatest success to date -- the return of dignity to so many.

"We're witnessing a very important turning point," he says. "This is the first time in maybe 100 years, maybe longer, in which the people of the region -- the different peoples in Egypt, in Libya, in Syria, in Yemen, in Bahrain, and in Tunisia -- to stand up and to have a say in how their countries are being lead."