Who can rule in the Arab and Islamic world - the military, or the Islamists? The experiences of the region in the 20th century in general, and of modern Egypt in particular, seem to present such a zero-sum choice. The work of historians and orientalists has validated it, implying that no other model of rule is available.
The region today, especially those affected by the uprisings of the “Arab spring”, again finds itself confronting the equation. It's almost three-and-a-half years since major popular movements arose in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria against military-security regimes. The latter had two things in common. First, although republican in name they sought sooner or later to become hereditary - and as a result they treated their peoples as possessions to be bequeathed.
Second, these regimes failed (albeit in different degrees) to achieve their main objectives - in development, in educating and training skilled new generations, and in expanding the rights of oppressed people. The fact that this era is one where the values of freedom and democracy have been spreading, and individuals gaining broader margins for their creativity and initiative, makes these failures even more damaging.
Moreover, military rule too often resulted in armed confrontations that often brought damaging results and even ruined entire countries. Often this was because the regimes in question fabricated or exaggerated problems to justify their authoritarianism. There is a range of major examples, such as Libya's war in Chad and the Syria-Israel wars (both direct ones and those fought by proxy in the “Lebanese arena”).
The era of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1952-70) had created the model for these regimes, and pioneered its grandiose and overarching delusions. These delusions were starkly exposed by the actual exercise of power, a situation that in turn created deep frustration among the people. With each passing decade the militarist regimes lost their legitimacy and became more vulnerable, as their peoples' patience towards them dissolved
The Islamist mirror
For a long time it appeared that the Islamist movement was the obvious, readymade alternative to the security state. This movement, after all, stood at the forefront of those suffering most from tyranny. This earned it the sympathy of large segments of the population in the countries concerned.
The Islamists also represented the radical antithesis of the military regimes - if not in their socio-economic vision, then in the source of political legitimacy. In addition, the links between their movement and Islam evokes a near holy aura among many people who still believe that religious faith is a prerequisite for political action.
But when Islamist parties emerged into public life, it quickly became clear that they lacked a programme for the future, and were unable to develop a modern notion of politics and acknowledge the limits of a democratic mandate. They also had an extremely primitive understanding of contemporary international relations. All this increased suspicions about how seriously they were going to respect political rules and whether they would accept a peaceful transfer of power once the will of the people had been expressed.
What of the more militant, radical Islamist groups, the jihadis and takfiris? They, as can be seen in Syria and Libya, often become a repressive instrument: an enemy of freedom, pluralism, and the right to choose. They will likely follow one of two paths (or perhaps both): recapitulate the militarist experience of tyranny, albeit in a religious garb, or cultivate and deepen civil warfare. In the latter case, they help destroy what is left of coexistence among communities, perhaps even these communities' very existence.
The Islamist-religious or military-security option: both deeply authoritarian, both discredited by history. But what comes after this great discovery? What alternative is now possible in the miserable region, our region?