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For geopolitical and economic reasons related to the Cold War, support of Israel, access to the region’s rich oil supply and most recently the global war on terrorism, the United States and Europe have done little to promote democracy in most Middle East countries. In fact, the West has supported many of the region’s least democratic governments, such as those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.

In the late 20th century, calls for democratic reform and greater individual freedom increased in the predominantly Muslim North Africa, Middle East and Southeast Asia. In many countries, diverse sectors of society began seeing their government’s response to their demands for broader political participation and individual freedom as a litmus test by which to measure its legitimacy. As a result, many countries have seen a proliferation of both secular democratic reformist and Islamist movements as well as an increase in street protests and politically motivated violence.

Economic crises in Algeria, Jordan, Tunisia and Turkey in the late 1980’s and 1990’s prompted tremendous public outcry. Many called for more sharing of power, transparency and respect for human rights. Others turned to fundamentalist Islamic groups, whose membership swelled.

The growth of Islamic movements, in particular, has had a profound impact on the geopolitical landscape.

On the one hand, since the late 20th century, Islamist political parties have emerged as major contenders in democratically held elections in Algeria, Bahrain, Indonesia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Tunisia and Turkey. In Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Tunisia, they represent the leading opposition to ruling, incumbent parties. In Algeria and Turkey, Islamist parties won major elections and now dominate their governments, with party members holding high–ranking positions, including prime minister, speakers of assembly and parliament, cabinet ministers and mayors.

On the other hand, the rise of radical Islamic groups, including terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, has undermined democratic reform. Radical Islamists generally oppose all forms of government other than a theocratic form based on Sharia.

Moreover, the September 11 attacks, the global war on terrorism that ensued and other violent terrorist activities attributed to radical Islamists have provided a convenient excuse for autocrats and monarchs in Muslim countries and some Western policymakers to forestall democratic reform. They warn that the democratic process runs the risk of allowing Islamist groups to make further inroads to centers of power. Ruling parties in Muslim countries, including those in Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Tunisia and countries in Central Asia, have also exploited the danger of radical Islam and their duties in the global war on terrorism to suppress opposition movements — extremist and mainstream — as well as to attract American and European aid.

Yet in spite of these challenges, over the last several months, the world has watched in wonder as hundreds of thousands of citizens of predominantly Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East have taken to the streets to make their democratic aspirations heard.

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Tags: Middle East Islam Arab Spring Democracy