As thousands of Egyptians hit the streets in response to a call from Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asking for a mandate to crush demonstrating supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, one has to ask the simple question: Is the Middle East turning away from radicalism and becoming more moderate?
The signs of moderation in political leadership can no longer be ignored. Look at Iran, where after eight years of a radical president, Iranians elected the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani. Look at Qatar, where the emir and prime minister had been intervening in regional conflicts on behalf of hard-liners, but now publicly supports the military-installed interim president of Egypt after its new, young emir, Sheikh Tamim, took over and fired the prime minister.
Al Jazeera, Qatar’s once-dominant pan-Arab TV satellite channel, has been losing audiences who can no longer tolerate its brand of biased and sometimes-inciting rhetoric. The most popular comedian in the region, Bassem Youssef, has become one of the most influential Arabs after cloning the American Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Last month, Youssef hosted Jon Stewart, who spoke openly about his Jewishness in front of a Cairo studio audience and millions of TV viewers. Even relatively moderate rule by Islamists in Turkey is being challenged as the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pressured to be more accommodating to the country’s secular activists.
Washington has noticed the change. In late May, President Barack Obama made a long and detailed speech that represented a considerable step back from his predecessor’s so-called war on terror. In the Palestinian context, the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, purged some of its radical leaders, among them Mahmoud Zahar and Izzat Risheq, before re-electing Khaled Meshaal as the head of a relatively more moderate political bureau. Hamas has toned down its rhetoric after having lost within a short period of time its financial support from Iran, its headquarters in Syria, and its neighboring ally in deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi.
The Arab League, which was at one time considering scrapping its Arab Initiative, has revived it with the addition of land swaps and promised to provide a safety net to protect Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas if he chooses to take part in negotiations with Israel. Abbas' decision to entertain the possibility of a resumption of peace talks has produced little opposition, including from Hamas. Although some of Hamas' Gaza-based leaders have publicly rejected US Secretary of State John Kerry’s mission, the top brass has been relatively silent about the upcoming talks in Washington.
It is unclear whether what we are witnessing is indeed political moderation or simply a backlash to the wave of Islamization that has attempted to hijack the Arab Spring. The region’s moderation should not be mistakenly interpreted as all-encompassing. While support for the Muslim Brotherhood has declined sharply, it would be a gross error to write off radical Islam or radicalism in general. In fact, there are signs that Salafism and jihadism have actually made gains in countries with moderate leadership, such as Libya, and might also grow stronger because of the failure of the less radical Muslim Brotherhood. Although Brotherhood leaders have not succeeded in gaining and keeping power in some places, growth among hardcore Islamists and more ideological (and violent) elements has not shown signs of slowing down.
The region is witnessing unprecedented political turbulence that has included the toppling of dictators and the sudden rise and fall of political Islamists. This earthquake has not yet stopped. It will take some time before one can reliably assess the shifts taking place. For the time being, the political temperament of the Middle East is clearly moving toward moderation, but with little certainty of its duration. Those living in the region, and those concerned about it, should not allow this window of opportunity for progress and stability to slip away.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab
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