"The dog that didn't bark during the Arab Spring was al-Qaida," Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told a panel devoted to "The Global Security Context." Now al-Qaida "is finding very important pockets in Syria, in the Sinai Peninsula, across North Africa in an arc from northern Nigeria through Mali and into northern Somalia."
Indeed, the presence of jihadis in the Syrian rebellion has certainly been a major reason for the world community's reluctance to arm the rebels or back then in a way that goes much beyond the rhetorical.
More complex is the rise of political Islam, which seems to prevail wherever free elections are held. The question on many minds is which way the Arab version of this movement will go: toward a reasonably modern and liberal model, like Turkey's, or toward the repression of the Islamic Republic of Iran? Even Saudi Arabia, a staunch ally of the West, is essentially a discomfiting model — a place with no free elections, where women may not drive and must be accompanied by male escorts for some of the most routine actions.
Thus the new Islamist rulers in the region are constantly under scrutiny.
The main case in point is Egypt, where Islamist President Mohammed Morsi narrowly won a June 2012 vote. Despite promises of inclusiveness, he has kept policy-making and the choice of appointments almost entirely within the Muslim Brotherhood.
Last month saw deadly riots over the contentious Egyptian constitution, which critics say subtly but disturbingly opens the door to theocracy. Islamists finalized the draft in a rushed, all-night meeting, throwing in amendments to fit their needs, then pushed it through a swift referendum in which only a third of voters participated. The result is a document that could bring a much stricter implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law, than modern Egypt has ever seen.
Opponents worry the group is virtually stepping into the shoes of Mubarak's former ruling party. The opposition has called for mass protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square and in major cities around Egypt on Friday to mark the Jan. 25 anniversary of the anti-Mubarak uprising's start. This time, the aim is to show the extent of public anger against Morsi.
Is there a contradiction between Islam and democracy?
No, insisted Moussa, the former Arab League chief. "Most of us hate what al-Qaida is doing. Islamic society has nothing to do with this, and (Islam) does not contradict democracy," he said.
There remains the question of whether the spirit of revolt will eventually reach the Arab monarchies of the Gulf. They have largely remained untouched so far, with the exception of Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia and its allies have helped put down an uprising by disenfranchised Shiites.
Qatar has emerged as perhaps the biggest winner of the Arab Spring, using its oil and natural gas wealth to spread its influence by helping rebels in Libya and Syria and propping up Morsi's government in Egypt with financial aid.
Saudi Arabia has felt more vulnerable. It has its own restive Shiite population and, despite its oil riches, unemployment is high among its burgeoning youth population.
Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, sounded a skeptical note about Western-style democracy.
"A heard a lot here about democracy," he told one panel. "When I hear of something becoming a model or a mold or a fashion like democracy is today, immediately I cringe. I think those who think of democracy as a Viagra pill that could solve their dysfunction ... are not on the right path.
"You need to have your own solutions," Faisal said, to laughter and applause from many fellow Arabs in the audience.
Associated Press writer Lee Keath in Cairo contributed to this report.
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