Newly powerful groups in Egypt and Tunisia cannot afford to become Hamas-like international pariahs, but they should be watched closely.

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Tunisian Islamist party leader Rached Ghannouchi, right, speaks with a deputy. Reuters

TUNIS -- Like it or not, this is the year of the Islamist.

Fourteen months after popular uprisings toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, Islamist political partiesĀ - religiously conservative groups that oppose the use of violenceĀ - have swept interim elections, started rewriting constitutions and become the odds-on favorites to win general elections.

Western hopes that more liberal parties would fare well have been dashed. Secular Arab groups are divided, perceived as elitist or enjoy tepid popular support.

But instead of the political process moving forward, a toxic political dynamic is emerging. Aggressive tactics by hardline Muslims generally known as Salafists are sowing division. Moderate Islamists are moving cautiously, speaking vaguely and trying to hold their diverse political parties together. And some Arab liberals are painting dark conspiracy theories.

Ahmed Ounaies, a pro-Western Tunisian politician who briefly served as foreign minister in the country's post-revolutionary government, said that he no long trusted Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's moderate Islamist party. Echoing other secular Tunisians, he said some purportedly moderate Muslim leaders are, in fact, aligned with hardliners.

"We believe that Mr. Ghannouchi is a Salafist," Ouanies said in an interview. "He is a real supporter of those groups."

Months after gaining power, moderate Islamists find themselves walking a political tightrope. They are trying to show their supporters that they are different from the corrupt, pro-Western regimes they replaced. They are trying to persuade Western investors and tourists to trust them, return and help revive flagging economies. And they are trying to counter hardline Salafists who threaten to steal some of their conservative support.

The decision this week by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to field a candidate in the country's presidential elections - which begin next month - is one example. The Brotherhood, which had promised not to field a candidate, said it entered to block a hardline Islamist from winning the presidency. Liberals scoffed at the explanation, accused the Brotherhood of seeking dictatorial powers and pulled out of the country's constitutional assembly.

In Tunisia, Ghannouchi and his Ennahda party are the focus. Tunisians say debates over religion are distracting the country's new government from its primary problem - a sputtering economy. Secularists accuse Ennahda of being too lenient on hardline Salafists, who enjoy little popular support here. Salafists have the right to protest in the new Tunisia, secularists argue, but should not be allowed to violently attack other groups.

Salafists attacked a television station in October after it aired the animated film "Persepolis," which featured a portrayal of God. They partially shut down a leading university for two months this winter and attacked a group of secular demonstrators last month.

At the same time, a Tunisian judge jailed a newspaper editor for eight days in February after he published a photograph of a soccer player and his nude girlfriend on the cover of a local tabloid. On Thursday, two young men were sentenced to seven years in jail for posting cartoons of a nude Prophet Muhammand on Facebook.

In a recent interview here, Ghannouchi flatly dismissed supporting hardline Islam. Asked whether Tunisia's divisions were broadening, he answered carefully.

"I am not pessimistic," he told me. "There is a chance to reach a compromise."

A 70-year-old, Sorbonne-educated Islamist intellectual who spent 14 years in various Tunisian prisons and 22 years in exile in London, Ghannouchi reaffirmed his liberal interpretation of Islam and democracy. While Islamic hardliners dismiss democracy as an affront to God's authority, Ghannouchi fervently embraces it. Democracy and Islam are not only compatible, he argued, but they follow the same traditions.

"The real spokesman of Islam is public opinion, which is the high authority, the highest authority," he told me. "Legislation, represented by the assembly, the national assembly."

Ghannouchi says the Prophet Muhammad's use of Shuras - or councils - to make non-religious decisions shows that democracy has existed in Islam since its birth. Government affairs should be decided by democratic vote, he said, not fatwas from religious autocrats. And he embraced full rights for minorities, international human rights treaties and free-market capitalism.

In an interview in New York, a delegation from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood that was visiting the U.S. to reach out to Americans professed the same views.

"Our number one priority is to build a democratic Egypt," Khaled Al-Qazzazz, the group's foreign relations coordinator, told me, "with complete democratic institutions."

Yet significant numbers of Tunisians, Egyptians and Americans simply do not trust the Islamists. They believe that after gaining power, they will insert Islam into school curriculums, roll back women's rights and reduce individual freedoms.
The fear is that they will follow the route of Hamas, the Islamist movement that won elections in Gaza and Islamized local institutions after years of relatively secular Fatah rule.

In private, American officials say they hope to create economic and political incentives that make being part of the international system appealing to Islamists. That strategy is the correct one.

Holding office and being responsible for creating prosperous economies, better government services and less corruption will moderate Islamists. If they govern and fail, their popularity will erode. U.S.-backed crackdowns on Islamists will only increase their support.

In interviews, Tunisian and Egyptian Islamists said they did not want American meddling in their political affairs but said they were eager to be part of the world economy. Becoming Hamas-like international pariahs seemed to hold little appeal to them. They too know that a by-product of a globalized economy is that isolation now carries a staggering economic cost.

Asked what U.S. policies would most help Muslim moderates, Ghannouchi said "encourage investment," "encourage tourism," and training and educational exchange programs. Asked what U.S. policies most hurt Muslim moderates, he said unilateral U.S. military interventions that fuel anti-Americanism.

On Thursday in Washington, 300 people packed a Carnegie Endowment conference at which Islamists from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Jordan tried to explain their views and their goals. Americans asked Islamists if their commitment to democracy was real. Islamists asked the same question back. Some exchanges were tense, but an awkward dialogue emerged.

There is the possibility, of course, that the Islamists are sincere. Tunisian and Egyptian Islamists who spent years in exile and in jail may not want to repeat the sins of their persecutors. If Islamists abide by democratic norms, their right to participate in electoral politics should be respected. Believing in God and democracy is possible.

An extraordinary debate about the very nature of Islam is unfolding across the Middle East. In the months and years ahead, it will frighten, confuse and alarm Americans, but it is vital that Washington allow it to play out.

This post also appears at, an Atlantic partner site.

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