In the U.S. mainstream media, the developments that have followed the misnamed “Arab Spring” have been curiously underreported.  The reason seems clear: In recent weeks those developments have taken a clear turn away from Western-style democracy, pluralism, tolerance, respect for human rights, etc.  It now seems obvious that the turmoil has undermined the region’s authoritarian secularists to the benefit of far more authoritarian Islamists.

In Tunisia, the first domino to fall last January, religious tension is rising as Islamists challenge the dominance of liberals.  In the first week of July a mob chanting “Allahu akbar” attacked a cinema in Tunis that had shown Neither Allah Nor Master, a documentary by Tunisian-French director Nadia El Fani, an outspoken secularist.  Police were slow to respond to the calls for help from the cinema, having previously advised that the screening be canceled.  They later arrested 26 men, but Salafists soon gathered outside the justice ministry to demand their release, leading to scuffles.  According to Reuters,

secular media and intellectuals have reacted with alarm, warning that freedoms in Tunisia—a bastion of secularism under 23 years of tough police rule by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali—are in danger of being lost if Islamists . . . are not stopped.

Taieb Zahar, editor of Réalités, is the embodiment of the suave, European-educated, reformist Arab intellectual.  “Have we replaced one dictatorship for another?” he now wonders.  “This is a foretaste of what is in store if firm measures are not taken against these sorcerer’s apprentices.”

Tunisian secularists are “victims of a system that is the agent of colonialism,” responds Abdelmajid Habibi, a leader in the openly Salafist Tahrir Party, which was behind the attack on the cinema.  Fani’s documentary, which advocates the preservation of secularism in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, was “like a declaration of war, and people wanted to say that they were against it.”

The attack is only the latest indicator that after the downfall of Ben Ali radicals have dramatically intensified their activities.  They are emboldened by the prospect that the Islamist party, Al-Nahda (Renaissance), will score a victory in the upcoming elections for the constituent assembly, scheduled for October 23.  Its leader, Sheikh Rashid Al-Ghannushi, returned from exile in London after the “Jasmine Revolution” and has rapidly become the most important figure in Tunisian politics.  If victorious, Al-Ghannushi and his movement will use the tools of the “democratic process” to transform Tunisia into an Islamic state—sharia, veils, and all the rest included.  The Rebirthers predictably reject such allegations.  As Muqtedar Khan has noted in Al-Ahram Weekly,

The success of Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey has given hopes to secularists that Islamist parties elsewhere can thrive in a democratic context without undermining or endangering democracy.  It has also given Islamist parties a roadmap to legitimacy . . . Al-Ghannoushi says one thing when the secularists and the West are listening and another to his followers.

In other words, Al-Ghannushi practices taqiyya, the art of lying for the greater good of Islam, as it has been practiced by Muhammad and his faithful emulators for the past 14 centuries.  When he shows his true face, it will be too late.  “Islamists have not been the leaders of the uprising,” Bassam Tibi correctly pointed out in the July issue of Telos.  “[O]n the contrary, like cautious Leninists, they are hoping to take over, eventually with the help of the exceptional sophisticated organizations of their movements.”  Unlike the hard-core jihadists, the “moderate Islamists” disguise their agenda of pursuing a sharia state and eliminate it from discussion, Tibi says.  Will the West attempt to work with moderate Islamists, treating them as alternatives to the jihadists, at the price of selling out the Muslim liberals?  The Islamist movement can never be a worthy partner for the West, Tibi concludes: “we need to encourage a civic Islam, appropriate for a democratic society, not to promote Islamism, of any stripe.”

As it happens, since Tibi’s article was written, the U.S. State Department has indicated its preferences by legitimizing in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which is not a “moderate Islamist” group by any stretch of the imagination.

The magnitude of Western self-deception and ignorance about the future of Egypt was exemplified by a feature article in the Washington Post on July 7.  The influence and organizational abilities of the Muslim Brotherhood have raised fears in the West and among Egypt’s secularists that democracy may end with an Islamic state, the Post says, but the movement, “long considered the only viable opposition to Hosni Mubarak, has struggled to adapt to the new political landscape that has emerged since his ouster in February”:

[T]he Muslim Brotherhood is facing dissension within its ranks, as reformers push for a more open system of choosing leaders and political candidates.  The movement’s leadership appeared to be dragged into the mass protests that forced Mubarak from office, and young Brotherhood members who joined the uprising say the organization is still too slow to react to the sentiments of the masses.  Amid the strains, some within the movement who have been calling for change are slowly splitting off from the Brotherhood’s new Freedom and Justice Party.

According to the Post, the cracks in the organization’s usually monolithic structure suggest that the movement may be unraveling.  In the same vein the Los Angeles Times (“Muslim Brotherhood showing cracks in its solidarity,” July 5) interpreted the expulsion of five leaders of the Brotherhood’s youth wing as a sign that “Egypt’s most potent political force is unwilling to tolerate dissent within its ranks” and that

the Brotherhood’s ideological and organizational rigidity, which buttressed it against decades of persecution by former President Hosni Mubarak, may be cracking as its young members yearn for wider political and religious freedoms in a new Egypt.

All this is nonsense.  There is no split between the Brotherhood’s freedom-loving young democrats and the cautious and aging old guard.  There is rock-solid consensus among the MB elders, however, not to allow a bunch of overzealous hotheads on the margins of the movement to rock the boat, which is steadily sailing in the Islamist direction.  The MB leadership knows what it is doing.  It has already succeeded in marginalizing the avant-garde of the January revolution, the liberal, pro-Western, tweeting secularists.  Its next step is to cement a power-sharing arrangement with the military.  Writing on July 10 in Al-Arabiya’s English edition, Dar Al Hayat columnist Husam Itani accurately summed up the Ikwani (Brothers’) strategy.  Five months after Mubarak’s fall there is a stalemate designed to erode the revolution’s gains, he says.  The absence of a clear vision for the future of the country, the confused performance of the judiciary and public administration, the uncertain security position, and the continuation of old practices characterize Egypt during this transitional phase.

Today, the two most organized parties in Egypt are the army and the Muslim Brotherhood and [neither] wants the end of this stage, after they came to savor the taste of wide prerogatives which are still—truth be said—far away from any legislative or legal control.

The unannounced alliance between the army and the MB secures to the former the right to exercise discreet control over Egypt’s political and economic life after the transitional phase, in exchange for concessions to the Muslim Brotherhood in the area of social, cultural, and educational policies.  Those changes will have the potential to alter the character of the nation more profoundly than any package of liberalizing economic measures or trials of former officials for corruption and embezzlement.  The formula is not new, Itani concludes: “Arab modern history is filled with models of alliances in which power was divided between groups that wanted to maintain their own interests.”

Apprehensive of the army’s response to an outright MB victory, the group’s leadership does not want to wield too much formal power after the September election.  It is able to capture a majority but does not want to do so, because the army—groomed in the Nasserist tradition of secular nationalism—is still too powerful.  This explains the apparent paradox that the Brotherhood is fielding candidates in only one half of all electoral districts and has refrained from naming a presidential candidate of its own.  Its Freedom and Justice Party—founded in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall in February—is clearly modeled on Erdogan’s AKP.  Turkey’s ruling Islamists, now finally triumphant, offer a ready-made and eminently successful strategic model for the years ahead.  The timetable and mechanics may differ, but the objectives do not.  On current form it is an even bet that an Islamic Republic of Egypt, in substance if not in name, will come into being within three to five years.

It is conceivable that the U.S. political and media establishment has convinced itself that Islamism is on the wane in Tunisia and Egypt, contrary to evidence and reliable expert analysis.  It is inconceivable, however, that they are continuing to clamor for the heads of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Muammar al Qaddafi in Libya out of mere ignorance or stupidity.  Those two leaders may be unpleasant or even mad, but the alternatives on offer are hardly more palatable.  By aiding and abetting their eventual overthrow, the United States is not going to earn any credit among their Islamist opponents.  Limiting the range of our political options in the region in favor of the latter-day followers of the prophet of Allah is a stupid mistake.