The spread of the contagion of protest across north Africa, from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, has not just been exhilarating, it has also given the lie to the myth that people in Muslim countries have a different mindset to those in the west, and that democracy and secularism are western concepts alien to the political culture of Egypt or Jordan or Yemen. What the demonstrators in Cairo and Tunis have been demanding is not an Islamic state, but a more open, democratic society, with freedom of expression and the protection of individual liberties.
For many, however, the worry remains that the fall of Hosni Mubarak may lead not to a secular, democratic Egypt but to one in thrall to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood; the fear, in other words, that Egypt in 2011 could go the way of Iran in 1979. The outcome of change – especially change as dramatic and anarchic as in Egypt – can never be certain. It could be that the Muslim Brotherhood grasps the reins of power in a post-Mubarak Egypt. But if it does so, it is as likely to have been because of the bad faith of secular politicians as of popular support for Islamism.
The real story of the past 30 years is not the triumph of Islamism – Islamists have rarely won a mass following and there has been no second Iranian revolution – but rather of the naivety and cynicism of secular politicians, both in Muslim countries and in the west, creating opportunities for religious bigots. Again and again, secular politicians have first brutally suppressed religious groups, inflaming popular opinion, and then turned to such groups to hold more radical opponents at bay, so providing them with new influence and authority.
Take Egypt. Gamal Abdel Nasser led an military coup in 1952, established a secular republic and savagely repressed the Muslim Brotherhood, executing its leader Sayyid Qutb in August 1966. A year later, Arab armies were routed by Israel in the six-day war. Nasser was humiliated and faced bitter opposition, not from Islamists, but radical secularists, who took to the streets in violent protest.
Fearing the radicals more than the Islamists, Anwar Sadat, who became president after Nasser's death in 1970, came to a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood. He released their members from prison and encouraged them to organise against the left. The Islamists certainly held secular militants in check. But Sadat was unable to do the same with radical Islamists who now flourished in the spaces from which nationalists and radicals had been forced out. In the end Sadat paid the ultimate price, assassinated in October 1981 by members of Islamic Jihad – a group that he himself had encouraged.
This has been a common story over the past 40 years. Secular regimes across the Arab world have unleashed the dogs of militant religion in an effort to keep in check leftwing radicals – only to be savaged themselves by the beasts they have let loose. "By making concession after concession in the moral and cultural domains", the French sociologist Gilles Kepel has observed, governments in Muslim countries "gradually created a reactionary climate of "re-Islamisation". They sacrificed lay intellectuals, writers, and other "westernised elites" to the tender mercies of bigoted clerics, in the hope that the latter, in return, would endorse their own stranglehold on the organs of state.
After Sadat's assassination, Hosni Mubarak took over as Egypt's strongman. During his 30-year-long brutal rule, there have been deep tensions between secular and religious authorities, tensions that have often broken out into open conflict. But there has also been recognition by both sides of their mutual dependence. The Egyptian government has needed not just a police state but also a viable Islamist opposition to keep secular radicals in check. The Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned, but in practice tolerated. Its candidates are allowed to stand in elections as independents and now form the largest opposition group in parliament. The Islamists, in turn, have used the repressive policies of the government to promote themselves as the only legitimate oppositional voice. But they, as much as the government, despise and fear popular power and democratic institutions.
The cynicism of secular politicians in Muslim countries has been matched only by the cynicism of western policy. Western governments have been concerned primarily not with promoting freedom but with maintaining stability. Where Islamists have threatened that stability, or challenged western interests, then western governments have been happy to see them brutally suppressed, even when they have came to power through the ballot box, as happened in Algeria in 1991. But where fundamentalists have played a useful part in maintaining social order, or establishing western benefit, then the west has been happy to support them, from jihadis in Afghanistan in the 1980s to the Saudi regime today.
The crushing of radical secular movements is one of the reasons that in recent years opposition protests in Egypt have been led mainly by the Muslim Brotherhood. What makes the current protests so different is that ordinary secular voices, repressed for so long by both religious and secular authorities, have finally broken out. The revolt reveals a democratic spirit that neither brutality nor bigotry has been able to crush.
Having looked to Islamists to restrain popular dissent for the past four decades, once that dissent has spilled out into open opposition on the streets, the Egyptian regime tried to portray it as the work of the Muslim Brotherhood, in an effort to retain support from the west. In fact, far from organising the protests, the Brotherhood initially opposed them. But if anything could bolster its influence, it would be any attempt by western powers to thwart the democratic process, either by allowing remnants of the old regime to cling to power or by denying Islamists their democratic rights. How ironic it would be if fear of the Muslim Brotherhood should lead to policies that enhance both its moral authority and its claim to power. But, then, those are exactly the kind of policies that have shaped the Arab world over the past half-century.