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Obama administration prepares for possibility of new post-revolt Islamist regimes

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 12:00 AM

The Obama administration is preparing for the prospect that Islamist governments will take hold in North Africa and the Middle East, acknowledging that the popular revolutions there will bring a more religious cast to the region's politics.

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The administration is already taking steps to distinguish between various movements in the region that promote Islamic law in government. An internal assessment, ordered by the White House last month, identified large ideological differences between such movements as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Qaeda that will guide the U.S. approach to the region.

"We shouldn't be afraid of Islam in the politics of these countries," said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal policy deliberations. "It's the behavior of political parties and governments that we will judge them on, not their relationship with Islam."

Islamist governments span a range of ideologies and ambitions, from the primitive brutality of the Taliban in Afghanistan to Turkey's Justice and Development Party, a movement with Islamist roots that heads a largely secular political system.

None of the revolutions over the past several weeks has been overtly Islamist, but there are signs that the uprisings could give way to more religious forces. An influential Yemeni cleric called this week for the U.S.-backed administration of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to be replaced with Islamist rule, and in Egypt, an Islamist theoretician has a leading role in drafting constitutional changes after President Hosni Mubarak's fall from power last month.

A number of other Islamist parties are deciding now how big a role to play in protests or post-revolution reforms.

Since taking office, President Obama has argued for a "new beginning" with Islam, suggesting that Islamic belief and democratic politics are not incompatible. But in doing so, he has alarmed some foreign-policy pragmatists and allies such as Israel, who fear that governments based on religious law will inevitably undercut democratic reforms and other Western values.

Some within the U.S. intelligence community, foreign diplomatic circles and the Republican Party say Obama's readiness to accept Islamist movements, even ones that meet certain conditions, fails to take into consideration the methodical approach many such parties adopt toward gradually transforming secular nations into Islamic states at odds with U.S. policy goals.

Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories have prospered in democratic elections and exert huge influence. Neither party, each with an armed wing, supports Israel's right to exist, nor have they renounced violence as a political tool.

And while many in the region point to Turkey as a model mixture of Islam and democracy, the ruling Islamist party is restrained by the country's highly secular army and court system, a pair of strong institutional checks that countries such as Egypt and Tunisia lack.

"The actual word and definition of Islamism does not in and of itself pose a threat," said Jonathan Peled, the spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, citing Israel's relationship with the Turkish government, among others.

But Peled said Israel fears that "anti-democratic extremist forces could take advantage of a democratic system," as, he said, Hamas did with its 2006 victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections. Israel allowed Hamas to participate only under pressure from the George W. Bush administration as part of its stated commitment to promote Arab democracy.


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