The large Islamist protests in Tahrir Square on Friday, July 29 raised strong religious slogans that reverberated around the Arab world and raised questions about whether the Arab Spring was headed toward pluralist democracy or Islamist authoritarianism.
Until recently, pluralist and pro-democracy slogans had dominated demonstrations in Egypt and elsewhere and Islamist groups were careful to stay within those bounds. But last Friday, amid tension over the drafting of the new Egyptian constitution, Islamists decided to stage a show of force, underlining serious divisions among political groups in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. What is the significance of this division and what impact might it have on Egypt and the Arab Spring?
Interpretations differ over the significance of the Friday protests themselves. No doubt they were large, with hundreds of thousands of people participating. But in a country of 85 million people, if that crowd represents the bulk of the Islamists' support, then they are in the minority.
On the other hand, if that is just the tip of the iceberg, then their power is overwhelming. That is an issue only free and fair elections – now tentatively scheduled for November – can resolve. Most estimates still put the Islamists as winning a large minority in the new parliament, but not an outright majority.
Divergent tendencies among Islamists
The media impact of the protests also needs to be assessed. The crowds' chants of "Islamic, Islamic" carried on live broadcasts are bound to resonate with a religious population both in Egypt and the Arab world. On the other hand, wide sections of Egyptian and Arab public opinion might also recoil from the model of government and society being offered by the Islamists: shari'a law and the empowerment of clerics.
By Paul Salem
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