No one expected a series of revolutions to take place in the Middle East in the 21st Century. The people did not see a revolution coming, and the leaders did not feel a threat. The Tunisian President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali left Tunisia January 14th, 2011 after a number of demonstrations against him and his rule. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was also overthrown roughly a month later. On February 11th, 2011 Mubarak resigned from his position as President, 18 days after the Egyptian revolution started. The Arab Spring continued to reach Libya where Muammar Al Qaddafi was killed. It reached Syria, where the fight to overthrow Bashar Al Assad is still going on. It reached Yemen, and the President Ali Abdullah Saleh resigned too. It reached Jordan, yet not successful to overthrow the Monarchy regime. If there is something common in almost all of these uprisings, is the role of Islamic Parties in them. In some cases like Tunisia and Egypt, an Islamic party is in rule now. In other cases like Jordan, the major Islamic party there “Muslim Brotherhood” failed to gain any prominence during the uprisings. Why was the Arab Spring an Islamic Spring in some countries and why not in others? Why were Islamic movements successful in Egypt and Tunisia, and failed in Jordan?
What is the Arab Spring? How did it start, and why did it start? The Arab Spring started in late December 2010, when Tunisians took it to the street to protest the death of Mohammed BouAzizi. Bouazizi was ready to sell fruits in the streets but an officer asked him to go sell somewhere else, and Bouazizi refused. The officer slapped Bouazizi, and humiliated him in public. Bouazizi then decided to set himself on fire in front of a government building. One slap sparked the Arab Spring (NPR 2011). A month later Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali fled and the regime collapsed. The demonstrations in Tunisia were followed by demonstrations in Egypt. More than twelve Egyptian men copied Bou Azizi’s suicide by fire (Gelvin 2012, 44). The first protest was on January 25th, 2011. Many political parties and activists called on people to participate in this protest including the political wing of the Muslim brotherhood, labor organizers, Facebook pages, and the April 6th movement (Gelvin 2012, 44-45). Mubarak finally stepped down on February 11th, 2011 (NPR 2011). This wave carried on in many other Arab countries. The Arab Spring wave reached two monarchies in the region. These monarchies are Bahrain and Jordan. A revolution did not take place in Bahrain or Jordan, yet the regime faced historic protests. These demonstrations in the Middle East had many similarities, but the most conveying one, is that the Islamic movements were a vital part in them. The Islamists gaining power in Egypt and Tunisia gave the Islamists in Jordan hope to gain some control or political prominence but they failed (Gelvin 2012, 133). The Islamists began winning more in elections around the region, and this made the people think that this will be the new “Islamic Democracy” era (Chaney, Akerlof and Blaydes 2012, 363).
It is interesting to look at the series of events that took place before and after the Arab Spring. It is also more interesting to look at that the involvement of Islamic Movements in the Arab Spring. I chose this topic not because I come from that region, but also because I am curious to study about Islamic movements in the region. The Arab Spring changed every single feature of the Middle East, and I want to discuss how that happened, and why it happened.
The Arab Spring: Argument
Tunisia is where it all started. Tunisia is where the Jasmine Revolution took place, and where hopes rose around the Middle East for a better living and a better future. Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab Spring (McCaffrey 2012, 41). A lot of factors led to the uprising in Tunisia. The first spark of the revolution was when Mohammad Bou Azizi set himself on fire on December 17th, 2010. The first Tunisian protester was killed on December 24th, 2010 (Miller, et al. 2012, 69). Despite Tunisia’s great economic performance compared to its neighbors, this economic growth was being faced with huge unemployment rates among university graduates. The percentage of unemployed university graduates jumped from 8.6% in 1999 to 19% in 2007 (Miller, et al. 2012, 64). Another economic factor that led to the uprising in Tunisia is that the government put more emphasis on coastal cities for tourism reasons, and ignored more internal cities like Jandouba and Gafsa (Miller, et al. 2012, 65). Social media had a huge role in the uprising, and helped global media in knowing more about the revolution. Moreover, other media sources like Al-Jazeera put major emphasis on the revolution and indirectly added pressure on the Ben Ali regime (Miller, et al. 2012, 70-71). Ennahda Party, which won 40 percent of the vote in the election, was not an active participant in the January uprisings. They regrouped and organized their agenda after Ben Ali left to gain more prominence, and leading to their victory in the elections (Gelvin 2012, 58). One remarkable fact about the Tunisian uprising is that the military did not hold the protestors back. The chief of staff in Tunisian army ordered soldiers to not shoot at protestors and asked Ben Ali to flee (Gelvin 2012, 60). Tunisia had a relatively smaller army than its neighbors, and did not have close ties with Ben Ali. This made the decision of the chief of staff an easier one, and also explains why the military took the Tunisian protestors side (Gelvin 2012, 61).
Egypt was the second country to go through a revolution after Tunisia. Political activists and social media gurus in Egypt called for a mass protest on January 25th, 2011. The protest carried the slogan of “The Regime must go” (Gelvin 2012, 44). Islamic movements did not participate in the first protest. As many tourists were walking by the Nile, tens of thousands of protestors were chanting “the regime must go” “Mubarak you must leave” and other chants demanding Mubarak to leave like Ben Ali did in Tunisia (Cook 2012, 284). By Friday January 28th or the “Day of Rage” over a million protestors were gathering together facing the regime and demanding Mubarak to leave (Cook 2012, 284). Mubarak then ordered the military to go to Tahrir Square which was seen as a sign of Mubarak’s weakness. Government officials used two ways to explain the demonstrations, one was that it shows how free Egypt is under Mubarak, second is that the Muslim Brotherhood were behind it. Both ways failed, and people did not believe Mubarak’s speech (Cook 2012, 285). Mubarak then gave another speech before his resignation delegating his authorities to the Vice President, but people were not satisfied, and they were enraged (Cook 2012, 293). On February 11th, 2011, 18 days after the start of the revolution, Mubarak decided to step down. Vice President Omar Suleiman read out the announcement in which Mubarak steps down and asks the military to run the country until a new President is elected (Cook 2012, 294-295). Egypt’s revolution took over all media sources around the world, twitter feeds, Facebook feeds, and other websites. The whole world was watching Egypt transform, and almost everyone expected a new power rising in Egypt. The Islamists of Egypt did not participate at first, but then they decided to join forces to be closer to the people, and to not lose a chance of gaining prominence. Two years after the Egyptian revolution, an Islamic president is now in office. What role did these Islamic movements have in Egypt’s revolution?
The Muslim Brotherhood changed its opinion on the uprising after January 25th, 2011, and endorsed the protests of January 28th. They even pushed for appointing Mohammad El Baradei as transitional president (Gelvin 2012, 59). The brotherhood announced in February 2011 that it will not name any presidential candidates and will go for one third of seats in the parliament elections. Months later, two future Presidential candidates linked to the brotherhood prevailed, and the amount of seats increased to one half (Gelvin 2012, 60). This tells what kind of a role the Muslim Brotherhood played during the uprisings, and it explains how the Muslim Brotherhood now rules the country, and has their leader in the position of President.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and especially Mohammad Morsi, tried to reform the military after winning the presidency. Mohammad Morsi became president after military rule which Egyptians did not like. Morsi changed the Commander in Chief and appointed General Abdel Fattah El Sisi who people argued that he was part of the MB sleeping cell in the military. Since 2005, the military has been holding negotiations with the MB, and after the revolution these negotiations continued. As of today, the MB has about 5000 combatants that they call on if conflict occurs. However, the army spokesperson said that dragging the country to civil war is something the military will prevent (Eleiba 2013).
Jordan’s Islamic movements “Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood” have different relationships with the government and the regime in Jordan. The Salafis are under intense control and supervision, and many of their members were trialed for violence acts (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 171). The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is still appeasing the regime, yet putting some pressure using Arab Spring. The King and his government accused the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood from receiving orders from their mother group in Egypt (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 172). It is not hidden that the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood saw in the success of MB in Egypt as an incentive to gain prominence in Jordan.
Despite their attempts to put pressure on the regime to change, the Muslim Brotherhood did not call publically for the overthrow of King Abdullah, and still had good ties with the military in Jordan. Their hope was to gain prominence now that the MB is the ruling party in Egypt. In Jordan’s latest elections in January 23rd, 37 Islamists won seats in the first elections after the Arab Spring. These Islamists are not linked to the MB or involved with them and they won despite the fact that the MB boycotted the elections (Halaby and Gavlak 2013).
The Arab Spring: Analysis
Tunisia is a Northern African country. Tunisia is the starting point of the Arab Spring. Tunisia borders Algeria and Libya. In 1989 Prime Minister Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali was elected President after he deposed President Bourguiba in 1987. He was then reelected four times, fourth being in 2009 (BBC News 2012). Ben Ali fled the country and chose exile in Saudi Arabia on January 14th, 2011. This led to democratizing the country, and bringing an Islamic party to power. Ennahda Islamic Party won in the parliamentary elections held October 2011, but did not secure a majority. Later in December 2011, Ennahda leader Hamadi Jebali was chosen to be Prime Minister, and Moncef Marzouki was elected President (BBC News 2012). Ennahda Party became a legal party in March 2011 after its leader being exiled in London since 1989, and being oppressed by Ben Ali in Tunisia (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 290). In 1970 the Quranic Preservation Society was founded as a mother group for Modern Islamists.
In 1981 a Muslim group called “Mouvement de la Tendence Islamique” founded by Rachid Al Ganouchi called for reform, and later in 1987 when Bourguiba was deposed, Al Ganouchi hoped he could work with Ben Ali and be active in political scene in Tunisia. In 1989 Ben Ali issued a decree prohibiting any party from having the word Islam in it, and MTI changed its name to Ennahda Party or “Renaissance Party” (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 291). After failing to be recognized by the Tunisian regime in 1989, Al Ganouchi fled to London, and by 1992, most of Ennahda leaders were in prison for suspicious political activity (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 291). Another Islamic movement in Tunisia is the Islamic Liberation party founded in 1953. This group’s ideology is to restore caliphate rule by force (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 293). Other groups in Tunisia are the “Tabligh wa Da’wa” which is a group with Pakistani origins. Morevoer, there is also a Salafi movement that did not have any political activity under the Ben Ali regime (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 293).
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did not become an official political party until the 2011 revolution. It is interesting to mention that when political forces in Egypt were calling to march on January 25th, 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood said that they will not be participating because that day is a day to celebrate police forces together. This could be seen as a way to appease the government, because the Muslim Brotherhood at that time did not think that the uprising would succeed, so they wanted to stay on the safe side (Tadros 2012, 31). How did the Muslim Brotherhood come to prominence and when was it established?
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by an Egyptian teacher named Hassan Al-Banna. Despite the group not being an official political party, it still was the largest opposition group during Nasser’s era until Mubarak’s. The group started taking a less violent approach during the 1990s and became more peaceful with the Mubarak regime. This was intended to maintain the group’s strength (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 265). Despite this so called peace, active Muslim Brothers would still get arrested if found participating in any suspicious acts. Another prominent Islamic movement in Egypt is the Salafi movement, or the modern political party “Al Nour – The Light.” Just like the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis called their followers to not participate in the January 25th, 2011 protests. Later on, the Salafis joined the forces and called to overthrow the regime (Bayoumi 2013). Critics of Salafi movement see them as a radical group trying to bring Egypt back to medieval times. Whereas Salafis argue against that by saying they are offering something better than the dictatorship that was ruling Egypt (Fadel 2013). These Islamic movements were active during Mubarak regime, but what happened that made them go against his rule, and now become political leaders of the country?
The biggest accomplishment for the Muslim Brotherhood would be their success in the 2005 parliamentary elections. They won 88 seats equivalent to 20% of seats through independent candidates. With this victory, they were able to form the largest opposition block to Mubarak (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 272). After the elections, the Muslim Brotherhood was willing to become a legal political party and divide. Essam Al Aryan spoke of this division, where a civil party will be formed that will have Muslim and Christian members. The other group will be a religious NGO that will be devoted for social services (Otterman 2005). In 2007 the government issued new laws that would prohibit Muslim Brothers from participating in any political activity or thinking about running in an election (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 272.). A year later, in 2008, about 800 Muslim Brotherhood candidates were rejected from running in local council elections. In 2009, their leader AbdelMunim Abul Fotooh was arrested. The Muslim Brotherhood then took a step back from politics in December 2010 after the suspicious parliamentary elections. They decided to forfeit all their seats in the National Assembly (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 273).
2012 is the year when everything changed for Islamic movements. For the first time in history an Islamic leader came to power. For the first time in Egyptian history, a nonmilitary president was elected. Mohammad Morsi was announced president June 24th, 2012 after a tight race with Ahmed Shafik (Kirkpatrick 2012). In his victory speech, Morsi described how this victory is important not just for Islamists, but for all Egyptians. This election is arguably the first democratic election in the history of Egypt. Morsi added that he’ll protect all citizens, whether Muslims or Christians (Kirkpatrick 2012).
Jordan’s major Islamic movements are very different. The first group is the main group that includes major Jordanian Islamists, and that group is the Muslim Brotherhood of Jordan. The second group is the radical Jihadi-Salafi movement. The Muslim Brotherhood of Jordan was founded in the 1940s with Jordanian and Palestinian members (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 165). During the 1990s, the Muslim Brotherhood devoted its attention to Jihad in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and other areas. The Islamic Action Front then the political leg of the Muslim Brotherhood started forming a threat to the regime. The IAF had close ties with Hamas, and called for jihad in areas of war like Iraq and Palestine (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 166-167). The Jihadi Salafis in Jordan are believed to have strong ties with Al Qaeda and jihadists in Iraq. They have popular mosques around the country that are not run by the government where they preach on their movement and beliefs. The biggest hit against them was the killing of Al Zarqawi in 2006, the master planner of the 2005 terrorist attacks in Amman (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 168-169).
The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan had an interesting relationship with the regime during the 1960s and 1970s. They supported the regime against the secular nationalists, and did not fight against the regime with PLO militants during the 1970 conflict (Boulby 1999, 94). The late 1980s and early 1990s mark the most prominent period for Islamists in Jordan. In 1989, 22 out of the 80 of the successful candidates were Muslim Brotherhood members. Moreover, in Student council elections in universities in Jordan, the MB showed prominence. In 1992, Islamists won 64 out of 80 seats in the University of Jordan Student Council elections (Boulby 1999, 90).
A New Regional Order?
Other Faces of Islamic Movements
Islamic movements exist in many countries in the region. Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the most prominent, but there are others that are still trying. The Middle East has been a region of continuous conflict between many different groups. The main conflict in the Middle East today is the Syrian conflict. Syria has many different religious sects, and Islamic movements that are trying to gain power. Syria’s most famous Islamic movements are Jund Al Sham and Ghuraba Al Sham. They were able to remain active despite Hafez Al Assad’s cleansing of Muslim Brotherhood members in 1982. The protests in Syria after the Arab Spring were not intended to bring more power to Islamists; however, mosques became gathering locations, and protests occurred following Friday prayers (American Foreign Policy Council 2011, 101). Even before 1982, the King of Jordan used the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood in his political conflict with Hafez Al Assad of Syria. Hussein was hoping that the MB forces near Syrian borders would be able to train the MB members in Syria (Boulby 1999, 101). Today, the most prominent movement is “Al Nusra Front” a Sunni Muslim rebel force that is linked to Al Qaeda. Despite the US’s support to the rebels, it also creates a threat, that the rebel forces in Syria do not share any notable interest with the US except overthrowing Assad’s regime (Hubbard 2013). This could only create a problem for the US but also neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. Al Qaeda is seen as a threat to these states, and these countries must fear the spread of the conflict in their own border lines. Jordan as mentioned earlier was a target for Al Qaeda attacks, and it will not be in their benefit to support rebel forces that might turn against them. Lebanon too which has many different religious sects fear the spread of Islamism inside Lebanon, and is not supportive of this new Islamic order in the region. Tunisia started the new wave of Islamism in the Middle East, and Egypt followed. It was not very bloody in Egypt and Tunisia, yet the conflict in Syria has become a civil war with no vision of a possible end.
Libya has several Islamic groups that existed and still exist today. After Qaddhafi was killed, radical Islamists became more visible, and their agenda became public. Radical Islamists in Libya launched an attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi killing the Ambassador in 2012. In 2013, radical Islamists still attack Christians in Libya and foreign targets.
It is well known in the region that coordination among different Islamic movements is very hard. The Middle East has many different religious sects. There is Sunni & Shiite Muslims. Sunnis divide into radical Muslims like the Salafis, and the more moderate like the Muslim Brotherhood. Shiite Muslims divide into groups that follow different leaders. There is Hezbollah in Lebanon, Al Mahdi Movement in Iraq, and secret activists in Saudi Arabia. Despite these differences, coordination exists between the Muslim Brotherhood’s branches around the region. The Muslim Brothers of Jordan often travel to Egypt to meet with the Muslim Brotherhood leaders there. Hamas before the Arab Spring was considered an ally to Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; however, this changed after the conflict in Syria and after the MB came into rule in Egypt. Hamas has been accused of killing 16 Egyptian border guards in 2012, and this is the main factor that led to distrust between the MB and Hamas (Mourad 2013). When the Muslim Brotherhood was an opposition force under Mubarak, it publically supported Hamas’ resistance against Israel, and supported attacks on Israel. This changed after Morsi became President, which led the MB to take a much reserved position regarding Hamas. Morsi also ordered to destroy all tunnels connecting Sinai and Gaza Strip (Mourad 2013). This conflict leaves Hamas to work in coordination with Egypt’s most radical Islamic movement the “Salafi” (Mourad 2013).
The Arab Spring did create an Islamic wave; however, there other groups that are still trying to maintain a non-religious order in the region. The secular movements saw the Muslim Brotherhood come into power in Egypt, and still demanded to see change. Seculars wanted to see why the MB carried the slogan “Islam is the Solution” and was waiting to see it being applied on the ground (Naguib 2013). Moreover, conflict between secularists and Islamists is still intact in Tunisia after the assassination of Shukri Belaid the opposition leader (Nashashibi 2013). The problem is that both sides have issues and are still not seen as the solution. Secularists are seen as an aid to the older regimes that were overthrown, and Islamists are seen violent in the case of Salafis, and political monsters in the case of Muslim Brotherhood (Nashashibi 2013). Fears of the Muslim Brotherhood taking over the secular youth’s revolution in Egypt existed right when the revolution started. The Muslim Brotherhood was not the force that called for the revolution, yet it’s the force that is ruling today, whereas the secularists became the opposition (Philpot, Shah and Toft 2011). Moreover, conflict between secularists and Islamists is still intact in Tunisia after the assassination of Shukri Belaid the opposition leader (Nashashibi 2013). Secularism is thought to be dead now after the new Islamic oriented government. Freedom of speech no longer exists, and protests for Ben Ali’s departure, changed to protests calling for no Islamic extremism (Clay 2012). The election turnouts in Tunisia and Egypt show dominance of Islamists. However, in the case of Egypt, 80% of only 50% of those eligible to vote voted for Islamists (Lust, Soltan and Wichmann 2012, 363). This indicates that half of the population is in different or are aligning with secular forces. Seculars in the Middle East are hoping to balance the power of Islamists. It is hard given that the Middle East in whole shares a common religious identity. The Islamic identity is the most prominent in the region. According to the Pew Forum, the Middle East in 2010 consisted of about 321.9 Million Muslims, and only 30.9 Non-Muslims (Pew Research Center 2011). This shows how common the Islamic identity is, and why seculars will always face obstacles in opposing Islamists.
The US and the Arab Spring
The Arab Spring did not only overthrow leaders, but also changed all political features of the Middle East. The United States have been involved in the Arab Spring since it started, and President Barack Obama urged Hosni Mubarak to step down in 2011 (Cooper and Worth 2012). The once important ally of the US became an unneeded cause of tension. Mubarak, who has helped the US for thirty years in shaping the order of the region, became a source of trouble for the US. The US had to support democracy, since it calls for it, and this became more of an ethical issue than really supporting the overthrowing of Mubarak. The US continues to support the new Islamic oriented regime in Egypt, and sends massive aid. Despite that, the US is being seen as an enemy in many states, because of the US’s support of the previous regimes (Gallington 2012). This contradiction in US reaction to the Arab Spring, is questionable, and might take the region into an order that the US cannot control. The other main concern for the US is Israel’s security (Kaplan 2012). Islamists are commonly against Israel especially the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. The MB which is supported by the US is in in Egypt and not very outspoken regarding relationship with Israel, and it didn’t not guarantee it’s safety the way Mubarak did. The problem today is that these new Islamic oriented governments are trying to shape their own order within a religious identity rather than a nationalist identity that was common in the 1950s-1970s. The US has depended on authoritarian regimes for a long time in the Middle East to spread its influence (Kaplan 2012). The US might regret spreading democracy in the Middle East, because it will not necessarily benefit the US and its policies. An Islamic democracy might become the problem for the US, yet the solution to that region.
So was the Arab Spring an Islamic Spring? Arguably, it was an Islamic Spring that is still blooming despite the obstacles. Islamic movements have seen success in Egypt and Tunisia. Islamists in Jordan are still trying to gain prominence and they do not seem to be giving in any time soon. Islamists in Syria are still fighting, radical Islamists in Libya are putting pressure through attacks. Calling it an Islamic Spring does not necessarily mean that it is an actual spring for the region. However, Islamists were the only to be successful in gaining power after the Arab Spring. Islamic movements are the most organized in the region, and it helped them come to power after these revolutions. It is also important to note that this scenario already happened in 1979 in Iran when a revolution by the people because an Islamic revolution, and the regime became dominantly Islamic. The Iranian regime saw the Arab Spring as an Islamic Spring, despite the religious differences between Iran’s Shiites and Egypt’s Sunnis (Zibakalam 2011).
The Middle East will be seeing a new order in place any time soon. This new order that’s been shaped by the Islamists can be either on the US’s side or against it. The religious identity of the Middle East will be the base for this new order, and is the only guarantee for Islamists to pass their agenda. Egypt and Tunisia’s models are still in testing period; however, it still gives hope for Islamists in the region to follow them. Jordan’s Islamists still have a chance to practice pressure on the regime for more prominence. The region is changing every day with many conflicts still going on, and it will be interesting to see where the Middle East is going to. The question now is will the Islamic Spring remain a spring?
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