The Arab Spring and the fall of Arab leaders, particularly US-allied dictators such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, have led to much consternation in many circles. While few would refute that the likes of Mubarak, Libya's Qaddafi, or Syria's al-Assad are genuinely good guys, some argue that the stability provided by these despots is preferable to the unknown vacuum that will result after their downfall. Particularly, it is argued, that with radical Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, waiting in the wings, these secular dictators are a safer bet for Western interests.
There is little doubt that another Iran (an Islamist led regime) would not bode well for US interests in the Middle East. Even Syria, the most anti-Western regime currently experiencing Arab Spring turmoil, could tilt further towards the Iranians. However, these fears are considerably overblown. There is much ground to believe that even if Islamist groups gain greater control in these countries that the outcome will be more benign than many doomsdayers predict.
First, it is far from clear that many Islamist groups want to control their governments. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, has disavowed any attempt to control the legislature and is running an incomplete slate of candidates. Arguably this is because many Islamists are concerned that the next general government will fail and thus feel it is best to be in opposition, not in control. Furthermore, many prefer to target the softer realms of government - welfare, religion, health services, etc. - and are not quite ready to take on the higher politics of foreign policy and economic affairs.
This later point dovetails with the second reason to avoid fear over the changes in the Middle East. The Islamists have, for decades, been a force of opposition. This is a relatively easy role to play, particularly when a country's leadership consists of dictators or military juntas. However, as Islamists step out from this role two trends will emerge. First, there will be growing divergence within the movement. As an opposition they could remain strong and united in saying "no;" as leaders they will invariably differ in how to proceed. [This may be another explanation for why the Islamist leadership is wary about taking full control of the government - they wish to get their base in line before power splits them apart.] Invariably such dissension will weaken the movement and undermine their ability to create serious harm.
The second trend to emerge will be that of moderation. Those who assume leadership positions in democracies with strong non-Islamist bases will be forced to tailor their message and policy goals in order to maintain their position. For instance, Egyptian Islamists have long disparaged the peace accord with Israel, but it seems unlikely that, once running the country, they would choose to create a new enemy on their border by repudiating the deal. Such moderation will lead to further fractionalization of the movements and more amenable rulers.
Finally, it is doubtful whether the Islamist parties, particularly in their present manifestations, will be able to maintain significant popular support to dominate their respective countries. While they have historically been the most vocal and organized critics of the Arab regimes, the Arab Spring has largely been a secular movement. In fact, the recent revolutions largely discredit the Islamist movement, which has failed over the past decades to achieve what these secular, youth movements have achieved over the past year. The Arab Street does not want to shift from secular dictatorships to theocratic ones. This partially explains the moderation of the Islamist movements but will also explain the inevitable rise of more secular parties.
None of this is to say that the next few years will be a time of peace and harmony in the Middle East. Nor is it to suggest that the West's interests will always be paramount under these new regimes - new democracies will undoubtedly be fickle. These new countries will not be younger, carbon-copies of the West but youthful and unique states that blend democratic institutions with experiences and expectations of the Arab and Muslim world. Many policies may be anathema to America sentiments, for instance the treatment of women. However, it is arguable that despite what a Western would call "missteps," most new democratic regimes will not be nearly as threatening as some fear.
In a sense, the un-repression of the Islamists will be their death knell. Their ideology will be unable to withstand the open competition natural to democracy. The superior systems of democracy and freedom will undoubtedly win the hearts and minds of the people, as the Islamists will be forced either to moderate or splinter off into smaller groups. While this may not happen immediately and it is quite possible to have a seriously wrong turn in the short-run, over the long-run it is relatively clear that such an ideology cannot have a long-lasting hold. One only need to look at the current struggles in Iran (and possibly soon to be second revolution) to understand this point.
The West would be wise to co-opt this to the best of their ability. They should facilitate the removal of the current regimes, like Syria, to not only be perceived by the Arab masses as friends of freedom but to undercut the Islamist movements. This will not only provide greater input and sway into the new regimes, but allow more Western-friendly parties to flourish. Additionally, the West needs to exploit the inevitable divisions within Islamist movements, cultivating the most moderate and marginalizing the extremists. While this will not ensure an immediate win on all fronts, it will guarantee the best possible long-term outcome for both the Middle East and the West.
[For two interesting articles that expand on these arguments see "The Rise of the Islamists" by Shadi Hamid and "Terrorism After the Revolution" by Daniel Byman both published in May/June 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs.]