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Sword-Bearing Islamist Signals Peril for Arab Democracies

Days after publishing an article on Salafi Muslims displacing moderate clerics from hundreds of Tunisia’s mosques, Walid Mejri found a sword against his neck.

Stopped on the street by religious extremists in Ghardimaou, 180 kilometers (112 miles) north of Tunis, he was accused of “apostasy and atheism, fighting against Islam and sowing discord among them,” Mejri, a writer and journalist recalled in an interview.

“One of them lifted a sword to my face, intending to kill me,” said Mejri, who’d recently written the “Battle of the Mosques” in the Assarih newspaper, in which he chronicled the installation by militants of favored clerics. “A soldier stepped in and saved me.”

The incident is part of a simmering battle between ultraconservative Islamists and moderate new governments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. The issue has become more urgent after protests and attacks on U.S. missions in North Africa after the posting of an amateur anti-Islamic film. That’s offered the most visible example yet of the challenge confronting the so-called Arab Spring nations.

The moderate Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia are “facing competition for political credibility from rival, more radical Islamist organizations, often espousing more extreme platforms,” said Crispin Hawes, head of the Eurasia Group’s Middle East program.

‘Big Problem’

President Barack Obama said last week that it would be “a real big problem” if Egypt didn’t act to protect U.S. premises and personnel. The U.S. is well placed to make its influence felt -- it’s the largest shareholder in the International Monetary Fund from which Egypt is seeking as much as $4.8 billion in loans.

Yet the new Arab democracies are reluctant to take measures reminiscent of their autocratic predecessors just a year after the popular uprisings that deposed their long-time leaders, analysts say.

“The last thing they’d want to be seen as doing is being very heavy-handed,” Said Hirsh, Middle East economist with Capital Economics in London, said by phone. Even so, if the Salafists continue to push they may alienate society and “give these governments some leeway in how to deal with them.” By way of example, he pointed to the Egyptian troop deployment in Sinai after a militant attack last month left 16 border guards dead.

It’s a delicate time for countries trying to fix economies ravaged after last year’s uprisings. The unrest redrew the political map in a region where authoritarian leaders had forcibly maintained the status quo for decades.

Growth Slump

Egyptian officials are seeking the IMF loan to help bridge a budget deficit that widened to 11 percent of GDP in the last fiscal year. The economy will expand 1.5 percent this year after 1.8 percent growth in 2011. That’s down from more than 5 percent in 2010, the year before the country’s revolt, according to IMF data.

The economy in Tunisia, the birthplace of the uprisings, contracted 0.8 percent last year, from 3.1 percent in 2010. It will expand 2.2 percent this year, according to the IMF. The country’s political scene is complicated by power-sharing among a troika of rival parties.

The moderate Islamist Ennahda party dominates the legislature, while two other secular parties control the presidency and the prime minister’s office. Disputes have meant inconsistent policy, as well as the firing of the central bank chief.

Islamic Law

Mejri’s run-in in Ghardimaou followed weeks of unrest in which Salafists attacked bars, staged demonstrations calling for the imposition of Islamic law and attacked marches held by actors and artists. In addition, more than 400 clerics were driven out of their mosques by the Salafists who installed their own sheiks, he said.

The Ennahda-headed government’s response was little more than symbolic, said critics such as Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, the head of the country’s secular Republican party, who was also attacked in the town.

“The Salafis’ plan is very clear,” Chebbi said in an interview, dubbing the extreme Islamists “the secret arm of Ennahda.”

“They decided to target politicians and civil society activists, aiming to terrorize them,” he said.

Prophet Film

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Mursi, won the presidency in a race against Hosni Mubarak’s last premier. Since then, Mursi has been working to reassure a broader spectrum of Egyptians and foreign investors that he will represent everyone equally.

The efforts have met with mixed success, particularly after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that served as a trigger for other protests over the film denigrating Islam’s prophet.

Mursi drew criticism at home and abroad for delaying firm comments condemning the Cairo protests. Looking to avoid potential violence, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups called on Egyptians to show restraint during Sept. 14 protests over the film, which several members of the Coptic Christian diaspora were reportedly involved in making.

State security prosecutors said on Sept. 18 they had referred several Copts living abroad on criminal charges including insulting the prophet and seeking to sow sectarian violence. Egypt’s Copts have disavowed the movie.

Oil Revenue

Libya’s tussle with the Islamists is equally critical for the future of a nation where oil accounts for more than 90 percent of the government revenue.

At stake for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries member is reversing an economic tailspin that came in tandem with the uprising that ended with Muammar Qaddafi’s toppling and death in August 2011. That year, Libya’s economy contracted by 61 percent, according to the IMF.

Of the three main Arab Spring countries, Libya is the furthest behind in its political transformation, and has registered the most violence. Attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that U.S. and Libyan officials say appear to have been pre-planned, led to the death of Ambassador Chris Steven and three other Americans.

The attack highlighted the security void in a nation where regional militias, armed from Qaddafi’s arsenals, wield greater power than the nascent national army.

Shrines Attacked

The country’s newly elected parliament and the prime minister it appointed are in the initial stages of forming a Cabinet. No single party secured a majority in the legislature following the August elections and, breaking with trends in Egypt and Tunisia, the Islamists fared poorly.

Since then, several mosques and shrines belonging to Sufis -- or Muslim mystics often seen as heretics by other Muslims -- have been attacked by militants. The new government headed by Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur has said a small group of Islamists including members of Ansar al-Shariah are suspected of being behind the consulate attack. The group has denied involvement.

Libya has a plan to secure the nation, Abushagur said in an interview in his Tripoli office today. Even so, the government cannot forcibly disarm the militias that played a key role in last year’s uprising, he said.

“Security is a top priority for the next three-to-six months and 70 percent of our efforts are dedicated to stabilizing Libya,” he said.

Speaking in a Sept. 15 interview, Mohammed Magariaf, the head of Libya’s new legislature, the General National Congress, said that hardline groups across the region “have an ambition to perhaps establish an Islamic state.”

That’s causing unrest, which is damaging the political stability needed to spark an economic improvement, said Hirsch. Populations have suffered amid the post-uprising downturn.

“If the Salafis carry on as they are, they will hurt them even more,” he said.

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