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Arab World In Revolt: What Role Does Islam Play?

Radical Muslims have not been driving the protests in Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt. For many young people in the region, Islamism no longer offers a solution to their problems.

What the "Arab Street" wants (Al Jazeera, via Flickr)

TUNIS - The "al-Amanzar" restaurant, located on a small side street off Bourghiba Avenue, is divided in two. On the ground floor are lawyers, doctors, and government officials. On the floor above, painters, writers, and all those who consider themselves artists. Since the protests began, deliveries in Tunis have slowed, and the kitchen has been forced to close at 2 p.m. most days. But this doesn't bother many of the 300 or so guests who cram into the small space on any given day. They are there for the alcohol. Sometimes, tear gas spills into the restaurant from the street, but that doesn't stop anyone from drinking their fill.

"Al-Amanzar" is one of many similarly functioning establishments in the center of Tunis. Often, patrons drink behind normal glass windows, visible to all passers-by. In many other countries of the Maghreb, such as Libya, Algeria, and Morocco, such public consumption of alcohol would be impossible.

As a secular state, Tunisia is an exception in the Arab world. Here, women enjoy nearly all the same rights as men: since 1962, they've had access to birth control, and since 1965, to abortion. Polygamy is illegal, and divorce laws affect men and women equally. The foundation for these conditions was laid by the country's first president, Habib Bourghiba, who established gender equality in the Civil Code of 1956. "No, we women are not afraid of the Islamists," says the Tunisian television journalist Moufida Abbassi. "No one can take these rights away from us after they have been around so long." During the month-long protests against the regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, no Islamic slogans were heard.

"The Islamists were chased down by Ben Ali and their organizational structures have been completely destroyed," says the lawyer Rhadia Nasraoui, who has represented numerous Islamist clients in the past 20 years.

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamic Ennahada Party, has announced a return to Tunisia from an extended exile in London. In the early 1990s, the 69-year-old was one of the main figures in the opposition to Ben Ali's government. After hundreds of his followers were arrested and sentenced to long prison sentences, he joined many of his comrades in fleeing abroad.

"It will take at least five, if not ten years," Ghannouchi said from London, noting the time he would need to rebuild his organization to its previous strength. The leader of the Ennahada was formerly aligned with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Today, he is reportedly pursuing a path similar to the one led in Turkey by the ruling moderate Islamist AK Justice and Development Party. Ghannouchi knows that most of the young people who are protesting in the streets against the Tunisian dictatorship do not know who he is and are not looking to Islam as a model for the future.

Algeria: Radical Islam has become obsolete

In neighboring Algeria, the situation is no different. Three weeks ago, the young people who engaged in street battles with police and burned down government buildings in several cities were fighting for their own interests: work, prosperity, freedom. Since the Civil War (1991-2002), in which militant Islamists fought against the state, and at least 100,000 Algerians died, younger generations don't tend to look to radical Islam as a solution to their problems. Of 33 million Algerians, 25 percent live below the poverty line. The official unemployment rate is 14 percent, but nearly 75 percent of all those under the age of 30 are unemployed.

Newly formed Islamic terrorist groups, like Al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM), which continue to make headlines with assassinations and kidnappings of western tourists, do not offer an alternative to young Algerians. "The Islamists have lost the propaganda war against public opinion, which classifies them as murderers of women and children," says the Algerian political scientist Ismail Maaraf. Young people have engaged in riots for years. They break out spontaneously, such as in 2008 in Oran after the end of a football game. "We have to work for rapid change," said the Algerian daily al-Khabar at the time, "or else the changes will be made through the use of force." The current situation in Tunisia has demonstrated how quickly this can happen when suffering builds up and a collective valve cracks open.

Egypt: The Muslim Brotherhood factor

A lack of democracy or press freedoms, an inhumane state control apparatus, an intolerable level of social injustice, and an autocratic ruler who has been in power for decades - these ingredients are also nourishing the current protests in Egypt. There, it is also predominantly young people who are venturing into the streets to stand up against the country's brutal security forces. Surprisingly slow to respond has been the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Until now, the organization has been seen as the largest opposition movement against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood has been banned, its members have been persecuted and imprisoned. In the parliamentary elections of 2010, the organization received sat out the second round of voting in the face of widespread state election fraud, leaving them again shut out of traditional political power.

Nevertheless, the Islamist group (until Friday) held off on early calls for Egyptians to participate in the current protests against the regime. "A large number of our young members are taking to the streets alongside other political groups," said Mohamed Abdel Fattah of the Alexandria Brotherhood. The organization fears being targeted by the state as the primary organizer of the protests, and being punished accordingly. "This is a typical attitude of the Muslim Brotherhood," says Rabab al-Mahdi of the American University in Cairo. "They do not want to take on a collision course with the Egyptian government," says Al-Mahdi, a young political scientist at the university, who is part of the "Kifaya" Alliance that has been protesting Mubarak's reign since 2004.

Is Jordan next?

In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood is less squeamish. On Wednesday, spokesman Jamil Abu Baker announced publicly: "After the Friday prayers this week we will be holding demonstrations throughout Jordan, for the improvement of living conditions and for political and economic reforms." The organization's goal is to continue with protests until these needs are met. The government has announced that it will invest the equivalent of 330 million euros into the economy in order to get rising prices under control, and will raise the salaries and pensions of state officials. For the Islamists, this is not enough: 25 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line.

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