On February 18 of this year, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians assembled in Cairo’s al-Tahrir Square to hear the 84-year-old Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s Friday sermon. It was a historic moment: Al-Qaradawi, persecuted for his activities in the Muslim Brotherhood, left Egypt fifty years ago for an extended exile in Qatar. During that time, he spearheaded the pragmatic, lenient approach to religious law in the Arab world; his sermons are regularly published online, and broadcast by satellite into the homes of millions of believers worldwide. The Dublin-based European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), which he heads, has become the most important institution of its kind for Muslims in the West. Finally, he twice turned down invitations to serve as the supreme leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, aspiring instead to lead all Sunni Arabs.1 Nonetheless, there was one achievement that had escaped al-Qaradawi, as it had all those who shared his Islamist worldview: the overthrow of the despised Egyptian regime. Now, however, as he stood in al-Tahrir Square, his dream appeared to be coming true at long last. Al-Qaradawi looked out at the expectant masses and, in a voice choked with emotion, proclaimed that the Egyptian revolution had just begun. The youth had achieved the victory that God had promised his faithful, he declared. The army, which held the reins of power, must replace the provisional government with a civilian one.2
Just a few weeks earlier, yet another exiled leader of political Islam returned to his homeland. At the airport in Tunis, the city in which the great upheaval that would become the Arab Spring was first set in motion, thousands welcomed Rashid al-Ghannushi, founder of Tunisia’s al-Nahda (Renaissance) Party. This, too, was a moment of closure: Twenty-two years earlier, in semi-free elections in Tunisia, al-Nahda had established itself as the only significant opposition to the despotic regime of Zayn al ‘Abidine bin ‘Ali. In the face of the subsequent threats on his life, al-Ghannushi had fled to London, where he had gained prominence as a brilliant author of Islamist indictments of both Arab regimes and the Western way of life.3 In newspaper interviews given just before his return, the 70-year-old al-Ghannushi declared that he harbored no political ambitions whatsoever. Secularists, Communists, Islamists—all had an equal share in the revolution, he declared, and went on to promise that his movement would support the establishment of a democracy that safeguards human rights.4
Both al-Qaradawi and al-Ghannushi’s return from exile marked a turning point in the Arab Spring. At first, the mass demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia recalled the turmoil that brought down Communism in Eastern Europe. Indeed, no one could remain unmoved by the dizzying scenes of impassioned protesters who lacked a single guiding hand, yet fought alongside each other to topple regimes that, just a few weeks earlier, had been considered unshakable. Through the effective use of social networks and other advanced communication technologies, the popular revolution proudly raised the banner of democracy. All of its participants were united in their call for the establishment of authentic and freely elected representative governments in place of old tyrannies. Indeed, despite liberalism’s decidedly poor track record in the Arab world in the twentieth century—not to mention the fierce resistance to George W. Bush’s democratization policy at the beginning of the twenty-first5—it was clear that, in the Middle East of 2011, democracy was still seen as the only legitimate alternative to those hereditary republics that purport to embody the spirit of the people, but instead become bastions of nepotism, corruption, and oppression.
Uriya Shavit teaches Islamic history and theology at Tel-Aviv University.