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Religion plays little role so far in Arab unrest

The waves of protest that have rocked Tunisia and Egypt have so far not fueled the political Islamist forces in those countries. For the US and Israel it is of vital importance that they don't do so in the future.

Protesters in Cairo

The protests have so far not ignited religous extremism

Despite fears - and hopes - that unrest in the Middle East could lead to an Islamist revolution, the opposition appears so far not to be religiously motivated.

Iranian Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami has warned that the recent events in the Middle East and the Arab world should not be underestimated.

In his Friday prayer in Tehran he said there was an "Islamic Middle East in the making – based on Islam, religion and democracy." Iranian TV also broadcasted calls of solidarity "with the Tunisian and Egyptian students" and reports about demonstrations in Yemen, Jordan, Europe and the US.

Comparisons are being drawn to Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution - while present demonstrations and unrest in Iran don't get a mention.

Yet so far there are no indications that there's a new "Islamic revolution" or that there's a domino effect in the entire region. While chants of "Allahu Akbar" ("Allah is great") were heard in the demonstrations against Iran's controversial 2009 election results, no such chants are being heard in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or Jordan.

The Islamic political groups in the countries affected are keeping a low profile as the current events unfold. Tunisian Islamic opposition figure Rachid Ghanouchi, who's been in exile for 18 years, returned to Tunisia only this weekend - more than two weeks after the toppling of the old Tunisian regime.

Muslim Brotherhood keeps low profile

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has so far not made any attempt to assume a leadership role in the protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. This may come as a surprise as the Brotherhood has long been a vocal opponent to ruling regimes across the Arab world, charging Arab leaders are corrupt, repressive and serve the interests of the West.

The way to go, according to the Brotherhood, is a pan-Arab movement based on Islam. But demonstrators on the streets of Egypt seem hardly driven by such ideas. What they're fighting for is freedom, education, work and a life with dignity.

Demontrators and police

It's not clear what will happen in Egypt if Mubarak heeds the call from the streets

Some 40 percent Egypt's over 80 million citizens live in poverty, according the the CIA's World Factbook, while members and friends of the regime enjoy wealth and privilege. The government has in recent years tried to revive the ailing economy - but the main beneficiaries were again Egypt's multimillionaires, with the majority of the country seeing very little improvement. The number of people living in poverty is has remained on the increase.

Egypt's authoritarian regime has been a welcome ally of the West that thought it needed Cairo for strategic reasons, as a mediator in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the growing problems within Egypt seemed of little concern to the international community.

Unpredictable post-Mubarak future

Egypt's future foreign policy remains a question mark in the event that Mubarak steps down, and it's here that Islamists might try to make their mark. Once Mubarak has left the stage, the new government could be in a position to question anything he's stood for - especially when it comes to relations with the Unites States and Israel.

Egypt was the first Arab country to recognize Israel, and Mubarak has been very involved in working towards a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict. His efforts in that field have been rewarded by Washington with billions in aid money.

Hosni Mubarak

What would a post-Mubarak Arab world look like?

Already, Washington has threatened to reduce that aid - and might reassess its financial commitment to Cairo if Mubarak falls, depending on who takes over.

Israel is also paying close attention to the developments in neighboring Egypt. It's no secret that the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty is unpopular among Egyptians. A shift in power could thus have an impact on relations with Israel.

Should the Muslim Brotherhood take the lead in Egypt, ties to Israel could deteriorate dramatically - with consequences for the entire region.

Egyptian-Israeli relations could likely change, even if Islamists do not seize power in Cairo. Even moderate liberal movements are critical of the peace treaty. Only a certain sense of continuity would sustain relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv.

The fact that the new Egyptian vice president and prime minister both have military backgrounds could point toward such continuity - even though Mubarak has installed them merely to safeguard his own position.

But Mubarak's power appears less and less assured amid unabated protests and calls from long-time ally the US for an "orderly transition." Though Israel's political future remains unclear, the region's shift to Islamism still seems to be far off.

Author: Peter Philipp (ai)
Editor: Kyle James

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