Most analysts would agree that al-Qaida has not played a significant role in the revolutions sweeping the Arab world today, while remaining largely silent about the remarkable political transformation that is taking place.

As analysts speculate on the effect of Osama bin Laden’s death on the group, there is no question that while al-Qaida may wane without its leader, religious fundamentalists will remain.

The domino effect of the recent uprisings, which had its origins in Tunisia, has toppled autocratic Western-backed secular regimes, ignited civil wars and exposed tyrants to international scrutiny, but has failed to identify new leaders or take clear strides toward new political systems. Even the international actors involved are baffled as to what comes after the immediate dangers have been taken care of. With Iraq still fresh in everyone’s mind, establishing a democracy is no longer romanticized.

The initial protests across North Africa and the Middle East were largely free of religious undercurrents. However, as the situation evolves in the various states, signs of Islamic parties are becoming more pronounced. Although in Western states religion is rarely a dominating factor in government, for many of those in the region, Islam is closely linked with politics.

In Libya, the international community is wary of signs that homegrown jihadists have become part of the council acting as a transitional government. For years, Moammar Gadhafi’s policies and authority were increasingly being challenged by both moderate and radical opposition groups. Nevertheless, religious extremism was not tolerated to any extent. Recent security reports show a return of exiled Islamist Libyan leaders to eastern Libya in recent weeks, with the objective of taking part in the country’s revolution.

The Muslim Brotherhood, an organization established by Hassan al Banna in 1928, is a prominent opposition group — both in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, in Libya. The Brotherhood claims to have a nonviolent approach to politics and is dealing with its own internal pressure to open itself to a more modern, tolerant approach. The uprisings allowed the Brotherhood to enter the political stage as a legitimate political group. In Egypt, a faction comprising the younger generation is intent on forming its own political party, namely Al Nahda. The question is whether both groups will participate in the democratic process or whether they will revert to more questionable tactics.

Another fundamentalist group, the Salafists, stands accused of various recent extremist activities against the Egyptian Copts. Like the Brotherhood, they represent a diverse group, although more extreme than the Brotherhood, with some of its members professing the need for peace in politics, while others choosing a more violent approach. The group argues that the Muslim Brotherhood is becoming too focused on politics at the expense of religion. The Salafists have a strict interpretation of the Quran and believe in an Islamic state under Shariah law.

Recently Salafist-led attacks on Coptic Christian churches ended in the death of 12 people. Officially the Salafist leadership denied any involvement, while the Brotherhood condemned the violence. Although the transitional government in Egypt has vowed to use an “iron fist” to deal with anyone that threatens the security of the nation, this increase in sectarian violence is further proof of the rise of Islamic groups, and the potential they see in the current power vacuum.

It has yet to be seen how Egypt and Tunisia will cope with the changes in government. Based on the Tunisian example, there seems to be hope for a return to normality. While the various political parties, registered for the election in Tunisia, revealed very little of their agenda for the future, focusing primarily on opposing the Ben Ali regime, the mood is cautiously optimistic. But difficulties are already emerging. Debates on constitutional changes, political systems, the timing of elections and the role of religion in government, among others, are under way. As long as these debates are open and democratic, there is hope.

The situation in Libya and Syria is more complicated as leaders of both fight to stay in power. Even more complex is the situation in Arab monarchies, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, reflecting the Sunni-Shiite divide.

There is a delicate balance between fighting oppressive regimes to facilitate a peaceful transition to a more democratic political state, and falling into a spiral of lawlessness and long-term civil war. Both create a vacuum in which new parties are able to enter the political stage.

In the throes of an uprising or war, emotions and loyalties are easily manipulated and leaders often make promises that are seldom realized. The question is whether young protesters bringing about changes can accomplish everything they set out to do.

In the meantime, analysts warn that al-Qaida and other Islamists could seize the opportunity to fill the vacuum in countries such as Yemen and Libya, if their leaders stifle peaceful, democratic change.

Hany Besada is senior researcher and program head at the North-South Institute in Ottawa. Karolina Werner is project manager at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo.

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