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Tunisia (and Beyond) Opinion: Can West Stop Worrying and Accept the Islamist Movements? (Karon)

Time Magazine's Tony Karon asks whether, as Tunisia and Libya enter this next phase of this pro-democracy movement, the West will be able to accept that Islam is not fundamentally at odds with democracy.

Tunisia's election and Libya's celebration of the overthrow of Col. Muammar Gaddafi won't have made for a happy weekend among those fevered heads in Washington who believe the West is locked in an existential struggle with political Islam: If anything, the Islamist tones of the Libyan celebrations, coupled with the Islamist victory in the Tunisian polls will have evoked the collapsing dominoes of Vietnam-era anti-communist metaphor.

"We are an Islamic country," said Mustafa Abdel Jalili, leader of Libya's Western-backed Transitional National Council in his speech proclaiming his country's liberation on Saturday. "We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion." As Jalili spoke of lifting a Gaddafi era ban on polygamy and called for an Islamic banking system (which bans charging interest on loans), he was greeted by thunderous chants of "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great"). The character of Libya's rebellion, at least among those doing the fighting rather than those doing the talking to Western governments, has been far more Islamist than its NATO backers may care to admit. Indeed, conspicuously absent from Jalili's Benghazi liberation speech was Mahmoud Jibril, the Western-backed interim prime minister forced out at the behest of Islamist and regional militias, who accused him of trying to sideline them.

Jalili's comments underscore the likelihood that a post-Gaddafi Libya will have a strongly Islamic character. Having emerged from a 42-year secular dictatorship, the smart money says that some version of political Islam will likely trounce any liberal rivals in the race to represent a national vision when a country riven by tribal and regional rivalries goes to the polls eight months from now.

In Tunisia, meanwhile, where some 90% of voters turned out to vote in the Arab rebellion's first democratic poll, the only question remains whether the Islamist Ennahda party wins an outright majority, or must settle for a plurality of the vote that will requires it to lead a coalition government. Opposition parties had conceded on Monday, even before the count was completed, it was clear that Ennahda had won by far the largest share. The party's leaders made clear, however, that they intended to seek a coalition.

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