In Abdallah Guech Street, a few hundred metres from the main mosque in the heart of Tunis’s old quarter, lies a red-light district which has thrived since the 19th century. Here the Ottomans legalised (and regulated) prostitution as they had in much of the rest of the Muslim world. Uniquely, though, in the Arab world, the tradition in Tunisia endured: every one of the country’s historic quarters boasts bordellos — even, most remarkably, Kairouan, Islam’s fourth holiest city after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. In keeping with Tunisia’s deep-rooted secularism and unprecedented championing of Muslim women’s rights, the prostitutes carry cards issued by the Interior Ministry, pay taxes like everyone else and enjoy — along with their clients — the full protection of the law

Or at least they did until last month’s Jasmine Revolution. But last week, faster than you could scream Allahu akbar, hundreds of Islamists raided Abdallah Guech Street armed with Molotov cocktails and knives — torching the brothels, yelling insults at the prostitutes and declaring that Tunisia was now an Islamist state. As soldiers fired into the air to disperse them, the Islamists won a promise from the interim government that the brothels would be permanently closed. In other cities brothels were targeted, too; and there have been demonstrations throughout the country (whose economy is heavily dependent on the vibrant tourism industry) against the sale of alcohol. Suspected Islamists otherwise preoccupied themselves with slitting the throat of a Polish Catholic priest, which if confirmed would be the first such sectarian murder in modern Tunisian history. And anti-Semitic slogans could be heard outside Tunisia’s main synagogue—this in a country with no history of persecution of its Jewish minority.

When the Tunisian revolution started last month, it was hailed as a template for the rest of the Arab world. But if revolutions are judged by their outcomes, rather than their intentions, then the story of post-revolution Tunisia is equally instructive. The world’s attention has quickly moved on — to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya or the next theatre of this extraordinary, fast-moving drama. The phrase ‘Arab Spring’ is being touted as if we were witnessing an unambiguous leap forward for ordinary Arabs: history marching towards democracy and pluralism. No one wishes to contemplate, let alone prepare for, the alternative — that this might end in the restoration of authoritarian rule or, worse, the triumph of a radical Islam.

When David Cameron visited Egypt this week, there were too few signs of the budding liberal democracy which he and other western leaders had envisioned. He could hardly congratulate his host, a former Air Force commander, for what was in effect another military coup. There was no Lech Walesa figure for him to meet, a secular democratic champion of the new Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood remains the only political group of any note. The key to being optimistic about Egypt’s future — and the Arab world more generally — is not to look too closely at what is happening on the ground. And to pay as little attention as possible to the events in Tunisia.

For all its restrictions on direct political participation, for decades Tunisia was the most secular and progressive country the Islamic world has ever known. The regime was the least brutal in the region, its people the wealthiest and best educated. The poverty level was just 4 per cent when the revolution broke out, among the lowest in the world; 80 per cent of the population belonged to the middle class; and the education system — allocated more funding than the army — ranked 17th globally in terms of quality.

The veil was banned in public institutions, polygamy was outlawed, mosques were shuttered outside prayer times and men needed permission from the local police to grow a beard. It was the only Muslim country where abortion was legal, where frank sex education was compulsory in schools and where children had it drummed into their heads that religion and politics were distinct and separate. Radical Islamists opposed to this strict secular order were either exiled or imprisoned. However, with the collapse of the old order, the Islamists are starting to come back — and with a vengeance.

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At least one group saw the warning signs early on. A few weeks before the Islamist-led violence, a small and peaceful demonstration was held by secular women against any move towards a more Islamist way of life. They gathered when news broke of the imminent return from exile in London of Rachid Ghannouchi, the ‘moderate’ leader of Tunisia’s (previously banned) Ennahdha Islamist movement. He has been careful to distance himself from the subsequent violence, but in retrospect the women clearly had genuine cause for concern, both at Ghannouchi’s return and the simultaneous mass release of Islamists from Tunisia’s prisons, and all in the name of the country’s new pluralism.

The West, it seems to me, should be equally troubled. If these notoriously ‘moderate’ Islamists, while still a minority and in the infancy of their campaign, can hijack such a modern, sophisticated and secular Arab country in a matter of days, what could await the wider region where secularism is already anathema and Wahhabi-inspired Islam has in many instances a firm foothold? The Islamists have set the social agenda in Tunisia through hate campaigns even before elections have been proposed. Without a similarly assertive counterpart, there is every chance that they will also fill the power vacuum being created from Cairo to Tripoli.

Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous nation and, like Tunisia, has a long tradition of tolerant and liberal Islam. The slogans on the placards gave the West plenty of cause for hope, as did the westernised Egyptians who tweeted their commentary in English. But placards are a poor proxy for the vox populi. In fact, the social decay during Hosni Mubarak’s three decades in power strongly increased the Islamists’ appeal — which Mubarak in turn exaggerated to keep Washington’s calls for reform at a whisper. A month before Mubarak’s downfall, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed that a majority of Egyptians support stoning as a punishment for adultery, hand amputation for theft, and death for those who convert from Islam to another religion.

Sensing their moment may be nigh, the Muslim Brotherhood — harbouring a long-cherished goal of establishing an Islamist state in Egypt — is already increasing its sway in the post-revolutionary land of the Pharaohs. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the fundamentalist group’s spiritual guide made famous by his weekly television show on Al Jazeera, visited Cairo recently to deliver a political sermon to a five million-strong crowd of the Egyptian faithful in Tahrir Square.

If, as seems inevitable, the Brotherhood gains sway over the government by joining in a coalition when parliamentary elections are held, it will find itself in a position to put the institutional heft of the Egyptian state behind its puritanical agenda. This would dismay most Egyptians who, while vaguely sympathetic to the Brotherhood’s goals, for the most part have no longing to live in an Iranian-style theocracy. But neither did the Iranians, before the ayatollahs took power.

As a hint of what might be in store for Egypt, consider the city of Alexandria. Once it was a cosmopolitan summer resort famous for its secular, carefree atmosphere. Now it is about the least fun place to live in North Africa. All Muslim women in the city are veiled, among the young often for fear of otherwise being labelled a whore; and violence between local Christi
ans and Muslims is commonplace (23 Christians were killed by a bomb planted in a Coptic Orthodox church on New Year’s day). Most bars have stopped serving alcohol. The only women to be found on the beaches, even in the height of summer, are those taking care of their kids — and they are invariably covered from head-to-toe in black.

It is a great mistake to assume that democracy is an enemy of Islamism. When the gift of democracy is unwrapped in the Arab world, Islamists frequently spring out of the box. The jihadis may be despised by most Muslims, but often in Arab countries only about 20 to 40 per cent of the population vote. It is by no means impossible for the Islamists to secure a majority from the minority, because their supporters are the most fanatical. Whatever the theory of democratisation in the Arab world, the history is clear. Where democracy, however tentatively, has already been introduced, it is the Islamists who have come to power.

Democracy came to Morocco, and now the fundamentalist PJD party increases its number of seats at each election — it is only a matter of time before the party forms a majority in parliament. Democracy came to Gaza and the Islamist group, Hamas, took power. In Bahrain, following democratic reforms a decade ago, there is now a fundamentalist Sunni block dominating the elected chamber, despite the fact that the country’s population is 70 per cent Shia. Ditto Yemen. Even in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was officially outlawed, the group won a quarter of the parliamentary seats up for grabs six years ago. But the Islamists seldom want to take control of the government machine. They have little interest in setting tax or energy policy: the influence they seek is cultural totalitarianism. Bereft of sensible, let alone practical, solutions to the real ills that plague their societies, they aim to Islamise society from below. And principally by tackling a subject close to everyone’s heart: sex. The events in Tunisia are merely an echo of what has been happening in the region for a decade. In Yemen, Islamists have long since been busy raiding alleged brothels and campaigning against all other forms of what they denounce (wrongly) as imported western decadence. In Bahrain, too, the Islamists have explicitly dedicated themselves to clamping down on prostitution and the sale of alcohol.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the Islamists have quickly ruled out running for the all-important presidency. They do not seek to lead a government, because with that power comes responsibility and accountability. What they need is a government sufficiently biddable to allow them to impose their cultural tyranny — and to succeed, they don’t need majority support. All the Islamists require is to be louder, more forceful and better organised than their opponents.

It would be foolish to argue that Arabs are somehow incapable of stable democratic government. There is indeed a chance that they are setting out on a turbulent path to a brighter future, free from repressive dogma. But in a region that confounds analysts’ predictions on a daily basis, only one thing can be said with certainty: it is far too soon to declare any kind of triumph.

John R. Bradley is the author of Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution (2008) and Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East (2010).

When the gift of democracy is unwrapped in the Arab world, Islamists frequently spring out of the box

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated