Long before he was driven from power last week, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was warning American officials about the dangers posed by radical Islam. In an early 2008 meeting at the presidential palace in Carthage, Ben Ali discussed the threat posed by Islamist radicals in the Middle East with Assistant Secretary of State David Welch. According to a March 3, 2008 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, Ben Ali was troubled about future prospects for a moderate Islamic Tunisia and the "explosive" situation in the Arab world. He also emphasized the threats posed by internal radicalism to Saudi Arabia and Yemen and predicted that the Muslim Brotherhood will eventually take power in Egypt.
Ben Ali, who had ruled with an iron fist since 1987, fled Tunisia Jan. 14 following weeks of public unrest. (He is currently believed to be in exile in Saudi Arabia.) His ouster came four weeks after Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor supporting a family of eight, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire after a dispute with municipal authorities. Protests spread across Tunisia in the days following Bouazizi's Dec. 17 suicide in the remote town of Sidi Bouzid. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to denounce - and eventually overthrow - what they regarded as a corrupt, tyrannical government.
In scores of media interviews since the unrest began, Tunisian protesters have emphasized the importance of democracy and fighting corruption, not a desire for Islamicization of society. But that fact has not stopped radical Islamists from attempting to exploit the situation.
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an imam who is very popular with Brotherhood members, congratulated the "Tunisian people for toppling the tyrant" and warned against formation of a new Tunisian government that included members of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally Party.
"I wish to send my sincerest wishes to the fraternal people of Tunisia, who set the example for the Arab peoples and the other suppressed people and crushed masses of the entire world," Qaradawi said. "What moved them is injustice, suppression and hunger." He added that there are "three to four other countries [which he did not specify] where people are starving and their rulers are stealing public wealth."
Hamas operatives and other radical Islamists have also welcomed the revolution in Tunisia. Hamas web forums are replete with postings praising the overthrow of Tunisia's "corrupt, dictatorial, oppressive" regime through a "blessed popular intifada." Other contributors point to connections between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Ben Ali and hint that Abbas is "next in line." One Hamas site reprinted an article urging Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to "prepare an island somewhere in the Indian Ocean for many of her friends and allies from the Arab dictatorships."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that Tunisians are on the path to establishing Islamic rule after overthrowing a Western-backed dictator.
"It is very clear that the nation of Tunisia rose up against a Western-backed dictator using Islamic, humane, monotheistic, and justice-seeking slogans," Ahmadinejad told a cheering crowd in the city of Yazd. "The Tunisians are after establishing Islamic law and rules."
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood demanded that Mubarak dissolve parliament, hold new elections and end the country's 30-year-old emergency law banning political rallies. The Jordanian wing of the organization called on King Abdullah to dismiss the cabinet so an interim government could supervise a new election.
"The events in Tunisia are a cornerstone for the rest of the people of the Arab and Islamic world," the Egyptian Brotherhood said. "It is a message to all the despotic leaders and the corrupt regimes that they are not safe and they are living on the tip of a volcano of people's anger and God's wrath." Ahram Online reported that since Monday, at least five Egyptians have set themselves on fire in Cairo and Alexandria to protest economic conditions, and there have been similar incidents in Algeria and Mauritania. Within Egypt a debate is underway about the self-immolations and whether Tunisia-style revolts could spread elsewhere in the Arab world.
Egyptian officials like Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit dismiss the very idea as "nonsense." Others, like Dr. Hany El-Sobky, a consultant psychiatrist, believe the Egyptian government doesn't understand the seriousness of the problem.
The people setting themselves on fire "are not sick. They are frustrated," El Sobky says. "But the government is in denial. The first day someone set himself on fire, they were quick to produce documents to say he is not well. The second day [they] did the same thing. Are they all crazy?"
A New York Times story Sunday indicated Islamists are not finding traction in this new wave of political upheaval. Rather, ideology is taking a backseat to the simple desire for change and a better life. Islamism "still has a powerful hold on people's imaginations across the region" and groups like the Brotherhood remain influential, the story said. But to many, the Islamist ideology has not lived up to its promises.
"People in the West are talking about the religious 'threat,'" Egyptian opposition leader Abdel-Halim Qandil told the newspaper. "They don't understand what kind of hell we are in right now. The country is congested and people are unable to confront the regime."
Amr Asaad, a marketing consultant, expects there will soon be an uprising in Egypt – "a big popular one. People are hungry, angry, deprived of basic rights in education, economy, employment, actual political power, even expression is controlled. They are mad at the unprecedented level of corruption and nepotism they see every day."
Whether such change would be a good thing remains to be seen. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen dismissed the security dangers posed by radical Islam and expressed hope that Tunisia and other Arab dictatorships would become like Turkey.
"If Tunisia can become the Arab world's Turkey, a functioning democracy where Islamism is part of the electoral mosaic rather than a threat to it, the tired refrain of all the Arab despots that they are the only bulwark against the jihadists will be seen for the self-serving lie it has become," Cohen wrote Thursday.
"A democratic Tunisia can do that Turkish thing," Cohen added. The real danger, he said, would come from "agents provocateurs bent on the worst, and the usual Muslim-hating naysayers."
But if Tunisia were to become like Turkey, it would hardly be reassuring to friends of democracy and freedom. While Turkey remains a parliamentary democracy, under Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it has also become a supporter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a defender of Tehran's nuclear program, and a strong supporter of the charity IHH, which has longstanding ties with terror groups like Hamas. In touting Turkey as a model for Tunisia, Cohen also ignores Erdogan's statements defending Hizballah and his hatred of Israel which drives him to side with the enemies of the United States.
Rather than a cause for giddiness or celebration, events in Tunisia should serve as a sobering reminder for U.S. policymakers about the durability of relationships and alliances with autocratic regimes in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
According to Middle East scholar Walid Phares, a critical struggle is under way in Tunisia between "civil society proponents" –Tunisians genuinely seeking to carry out a democratic revolution there – and "the Marxist left-wing, Pan Arab ultra nationalists and the Islamists." He writes that the key to forging a democratic future for Tunisia will be forming a partnership with the Tunisian Army – the one national institution currently capable of providing basic security in the country.
Phares urges the free world to work with the army and grassroots democracy advocates to head off the Islamists and other radical movements: "Absent such architecture, the totalitarian wolves, claiming victimhood under Ben Ali, will become the 'new regime' after a fierce struggle among them."