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In Egypt and Tunisia, the rise of the Islamists?

The fear of freedom for Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab countries is that it might give rise to the rule of extreme Islamists, creating Iranian-style theocracies. This fear does not match the reality.

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Would democratic freedoms in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world free up Islamists to take over?

That’s the fear of the United States and other democratic countries, especially Israel.

Or is that fear exaggerated, stoked by a string of authoritarian rulers who need only hold up the extremist threat – the mullahs in Iran, Hamas in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon – to win US support for their regimes?

Events on the ground in Egypt and Tunisia show that perhaps the Islamist boogeyman is more boogey than man in these and other countries. In both countries, it was for secular reasons – not Islamic jihad – that the protests started.

These once-silent masses were motivated by despised despotism, leaders’ lack of respect for the public, and poor prospects for a decent living – standard complaints that have fueled popular uprisings the world over.

Interestingly, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is the only organized and forceful opposition in this most populous Arab country, came late to the protests. It has now joined forces with a loosely grouped secular opposition to back Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former diplomat, to lead the way to change.

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