In 2008, I had the opportunity to travel to Tunisia and meet with private citizens and public officials to discuss American foreign policy towards the Muslim world. It was fortuitous time to be in a Muslim country. It was during the height of the race for the US presidency and all three candidates, Obama, Clinton and McCain, were still in the running. The direction of where the next US president was on the minds of the local Tunisians as well.
The overwhelming majority of the individuals I spoke to all saw Obama as the best thing that could happen to US-Muslim relations. The locals identified him as the candidate who best understood the Muslim mindset. Furthermore, as far as the Middle East at large is concerned, Tunisia saw itself as a model for moderation and believed that they could export this model to the Middle East. This belief included Israeli-Palestinian relations where Tunisians believed they could play instrumental role in bringing peace.
This somewhat naïve sentiment was something I was willing to entertain, given Tunisian acceptance of its Jewish minority. The Jewish community of Djerba is today unique in a Muslim country. But it is key to stress here that when questioned about what Tunisia is doing to promote these aspects of "moderation," it was assumed that the global community should "of course" know who and what they stand for. Moderation was defined by moderates, and the reverse. What it really meant in terms of attitudes or behaviors could not be quite specified.
History shows that Tunisian moderation has many sides. Recall for example that after Israel went into Lebanon in 1982, Arafat and his "kitchen cabinet" were evacuated from Beirut and with the help of the US were able to set up shop in Tunis. Sympathy for the PLO and Arafat were great, and in recent decades this has solidified in Tunisia. One of the major roads is named Yasser Arafat Boulevard.
Fast forward three years. Tunisia has been congratulated by Hamas for their Intifada and for overturning the corrupt Ben Ali regime. Hamas has also called the Tunisian revolution a "milestone in contemporary Arab history," and has asserted that injustice can only be countered with sacrifice. "What occurred in Tunisia confirms that the path of dignity and confronting injustice, aggression and tyranny is not by solicitation, but by sacrifices and paying the price of pride and dignity. The Tunisians, who offered dozens of martyrs and hundreds of wounded, deserve this great achievement." Hamas speaks from experience about "martyrs" and wounded.
Speak out against Islamists
Hamas went a step further to remind Tunisia of its struggle against French colonialism in the mid-1900s and the support they have provided to the Palestinians in their "resistance" against the Israeli "occupation." Hamas thinks it has seen the future in Tunisia and even more so in Egypt as illustrated by the approximate 1,000 supporters of Hamas who rallied in front of the Egyptian representative office in Gaza, waving Palestinian and Egyptian flags and chanting, "Mubarak, you must leave."Others carried banners in Arabic and English that read, "The Egyptian people want to change their regime, we must support and respect that."
The spirit of the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution - or Intifada, depending on who you ask - has reached the streets of Cairo where the Egyptian proletariat is driven by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which Hamas grew out of. The Brotherhood is now one of only two political institutions that would survive Mubarak's downfall; the other is the military. And if we look at the model established in the mini-state of Gaza, the security forces, the military and the Islamists, including the Brotherhood, will increase the fighting or cut a deal, or create some combination of both.
For moderate Muslim voices to be heard they need to speak out against the Islamists and the likes of the Brotherhood, not embrace it as the "voice of the people." It is this tactic that allowed Hamas to come to power in Gaza in 2007. The Obama administration is mistaken if it believes that the Brotherhood has any intention to change its tone or methodology.
Finally, if the Obama administration truly believes in change in the region, it is in for a rude awakening if it continues to see the Brotherhood as that outlet of moderation. It was a mistake to invite Brotherhood to the president's 2009 Cairo speech and it's a mistake now to believe that this group is the voice of reason. Internalizing the fact that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah use catch phrases that seem democratic and then turn them around to promote their own Islamist agenda should be a given.