The world cheered when peaceful pro-democracy movements overthrew autocratic governments in Tunisia and Egypt this year, but old fears that long-banned Islamist movements in both countries would rise to prominence, endangering the rights of women and minorities and fostering violent extremism, quickly resurfaced. So too, however, did leaders of those movements who seem determined to say all the right things when it comes to Islamism and democracy.
"We have continuously defended the right of women and men to choose their own lifestyle, and we are against the imposition of the headscarf in the name of Islam," said Rached Ghannouchi, the 70-year-old former socialist turned Islamist leader of Tunisia's al-Nahda (Renaissance) party who returned home in January after 22 years of exile in London, where he'd fled after a decade of torture and imprisonment in his home country. After winning a plurality of 40 percent in Tunisia's first-ever democratic elections, Ghannouchi's party is a major power broker in the new government.
Khairat El Shater, the top financier of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, spent a dozen years in prison under Hosni Mubarak before being released after the revolution. He also sought to reassure the West, writing in the Guardian, "The success of the Muslim Brotherhood should not frighten anybody: we respect the rights of all religious and political groups." The leadership of the now-legal Muslim Brotherhood is very much up for grabs, and Shater is seen as a leading candidate to head the party and perhaps, one day, the country: a media-savvy engineer who became prosperous as a textile and furniture trader, developing a knack for working with foreign investors.
Given the audiences these leaders command, there's little hope for democracy unless they are on board. So far, they seem to be playing a mostly productive role. Let's hope it stays that way.
Stimulus or austerity? Stimulus.
Arab Spring or Arab Winter? Arab Spring.
Reading list Borj Roumi, by Samir Sassi; History of Tunisia, by Hedi Timoumi.
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images; MOHAMED OMAR/EPA