What the Arab Awakening, Salafists and Israel Have in Common

Enough time has now passed since the Arab Awakening commenced to identify some trends. It is clear that extremist elements have more or less won the first round of elections in the countries most impacted by the Awakening -- either directly or indirectly -- and will assume a disproportionately large role in the initial development of the new political and social systems that are emerging. This is clearly the case in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, where extremist forces are more organized than other groups, and because they are strongly motivated by deep religious belief and commitment. As a result, they have plenty of money at their disposal, effective managerial infrastructure in most towns and villages, and large numbers of highly motivated supporters.

Their impact has already been felt, and will continue to be felt disproportionately in the makeup of the new laws being drafted and social systems being put in place. However, their influence may not endure long-term since most societies eventually shift away from draconian religious strictures and become more focused on the broader needs and attitudes of a given population. While some extremist elements have thrived precisely because they are meeting social needs the governments have not met or are not meeting, the needs of the general population are often not in sync with the long-term objectives of extremist movements. These societies tend to gradually reject the more draconian rules, and slowly liberalize them to become more in tune with global trends and the liberalizing influences of modern information technology.

The extremists will gradually alienate the vast majority of moderate citizens, who really just want to function without difficulty, and who do not respond well to harsh repression. In the case of Iran, a widespread and generally accepted revolution initially led by students, liberals, social justice and other similar activist groups became hijacked and their agenda seized by the Salafists. Today, Salafists are attempting to do something similar in North Africa.

Parts of the Arab/Muslim world are struggling with newfound political freedom, but we are at the beginning of a very long process of sorting out whose version of Islam becomes the longer term law of the land. As new expressions of democracy sweep across the Arab world, the spectrum of political philosophies -- from secular liberalism to religious ultra orthodoxy -- will struggle for positions of primacy in the development of these societies. And as the Arab world transforms itself into more modern 21st-century societies, ironically, they may come to look more and more like Israel.

Both Israel and the modern Arab States were formed in the post-World War II era and were led by secular, liberal, socialist-oriented groups. In Israel, this was best characterized by the Kibbutz movement and the Labor Party. The Arab world was dominated for the first 25 years following the war by socialist, secular military pan-Arabists led by the charismatic Egyptian Nasser. Today, Israeli politics are dominated by a right-wing Likud that is strongly anti-socialist and more closely aligned with the policies and theology of the Ultra Orthodox, who have largely taken control over the settlement movement in the West Bank and seek to impose their extreme religious practices on the rest of Israeli society.

In parallel, a more assertive Islam is in resurgence today, freed from the shackles of European colonial repression and secular, socialist military-led regimes. In the absence of the constraints of repressive military dictators, there will eventually be a blossoming of a broad spectrum of ideologies and theologies, but also, deeply rooted social conflict, as these very different world views clash in a newly found freedom not experienced in the region for centuries. The transition will not be smooth, fast, or without discord, as the issues being debated are critical to determining the direction these nations take.

What will in all likelihood happen is that the Arab states around Israel (even Syria) will gradually come to closely resemble Israel in a variety of ways. For example, religiously dominated majorities will come to accommodate powerful and active minorities (such as the Palestinians in Israel and Christian Copts in Egypt). This concept offers hope that as these presently diverse societies grow more similar they will find more ways to realize the common ground they share systemically. There is the hope that real dialogue between these ever more dominant orthodox religious elements will result in ever greater shared perceptions and realities. It would not be surprising to see, ten years from now, political alliances of secularists in Tel Aviv and Cairo, as ultra Orthodox Jews in Israel and Salafists in Egypt may find shared values and a mirror image of basic theological doctrines.

Stranger things have happened in the Middle East, with much worse outcomes than this new paradigm presages. Of course, there is also an equal potential for extremists on both sides to dominate the debate and seek to maintain hostility with their neighbors. And there is no doubt that religious extremists who are willing to kill and die for their beliefs tend to be among the most ideologically rigid elements in any society. But the responsibility for governing will force even the most extreme elements to accept more pragmatic policies, or risk alienating the majority and ultimately be removed from office.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management firm based in Connecticut (USA), and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". Charles Kestenbaum is Director of Middle Eastern Affairs at CRS.