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What’s Inspiring The Arab Revolt?

It is important to remember that this is not a revolt of religious extremists.
It is important to remember that this is not a revolt of religious extremists.
Will the successful Tunisian revolt or Egyptian unrest lead to more democratic, stable, and moderate regimes? Or is it the beginning of dangerously unpredictable events in the Arab world that could endanger peace or lead to an ascendance of Islamic regimes?

It is next to impossible to predict the course of mass activism and protests in these volatile environments. But there are reasons to think that the fall of authoritarian regimes by mainly young and frustrated protesters will not necessarily lead to a catastrophic outcome.

Many Arab and non-Arab observers cannot help but remember the example of Iran in the 1970s, when an authoritarian regime was replaced by a much more brutal, dangerous, and intolerant religious dictatorship. But there is one obvious difference between Tunisia and Egypt at this stage and the 1979 Iranian uprising that led to an Islamic Revolution. In these two Arab countries, Islamic groups (neither moderate nor extremist) are not leading the revolts. Certainly, Islamic elements are present among the demonstrators, but it is not Islamic political ideology or leaders inspiring the protesters.

The protesters are mainly young people who have personal and national aspirations, which they believe they can never achieve under authoritarian and corrupt rule. Contrary to the impression Islamic fundamentalism has created in the last decade, most young Arabs do not want to live an isolated, restricted, and medieval existence circumscribed by religion. They want to be educated, enjoy social mobility, have a reasonable hope of a good future and a measure of self-esteem, and to be treated with dignity. Most young Arabs want modernization and a strong economy that would provide jobs, nice cars, and some version of a Western-style, less restrictive social life.

The Arab-Muslim world has been facing social and political tensions ever since modernization got under way in the region. However, after more than a century, this partial modernization never enabled Arab nations to really catch up with the West. It did lead to elevated aspirations and increased pressure on youths to succeed in education, launch careers, and gain wealth. But it did not provide sufficient opportunity for these aspirations to be realized.

Not A Revolt Of Extremists

It was these contradictions and pressures that created a backlash against modernization and Westernization, and the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism is the most visible manifestation of this backlash. But only a limited number of young Arabs have joined the fundamentalist wave. The vast majority still look with envy toward youths in more modernized countries. It is this large group of disaffected youths with progressive aspirations that is now rising up.

It is perhaps not an accident of history that the revolt began in Tunisia, a highly educated Arab country with strong secular impulses. Egyptians, by contrast, have a much higher rate of illiteracy, but there are vast numbers of urban educated youths ready to emulate their Tunisian peers. That is why it is a revolt riding on Twitter and Facebook, which has even taken the most visible Egyptian opposition leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, by surprise. The extremist Muslim Brotherhood admits it is just part of the movement, not its leader or even its most important faction.

Will the Egyptian regime fall? And if it does, to what extent will a significant part of the current ruling elite continue to play a role in a smooth transition? Will there even be a smooth transition at all?

These are all very hard to predict. But it is important to remember that this is not a revolt of religious extremists, and it is not led by a maverick cleric in the style of Iranian Revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Moreover, if the autocrats are toppled, the demands of the revolutionaries must be taken seriously. They will demand to be heard and treated respectfully. Relations with the West and especially with Israel might become tense, because part of the frustration is a deep and widespread feeling that the West has treated Arabs unfairly and that Israel is hostile to Arabs.

Egypt is a crucial Arab country, and any regime change in Egypt could have tumultuous reverberations across the region. At this point, there is still much reason to expect that such a process would result in the torch of Arab and Muslim identity and moral leadership being passed to a new generation of secular, nationalist forces. Not to Islamic extremists.

Mardo Soghom is a deputy director of broadcast operations at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL