They gathered when news broke of the imminent return from exile in London of 69-year-old Rachid Ghannouchi, the ‘moderate’ leader of Tunisia’s (previously banned) Ennahdha Islamist movement.
Ghannouchi has been careful to distance himself from the subsequent violence. But in retrospect, the women clearly had genuine cause for concern, both at his return and the simultaneous mass release of Islamists from Tunisia’s prisons — and all in the name of the country’s new pluralism.
The West, it seems to me, should be equally troubled. If these notoriously ‘moderate’ Islamists, while still a minority and in the infancy of their campaign, can hijack such a modern, sophisticated and secular Arab country in a matter of days, what could await the wider region, where secularism is already anathema and Wahhabi-inspired Islam has, in many instances, a firm foothold?
The Islamists have, through hate campaigns, set the social agenda in Tunisia even before elections have been proposed. Without a similarly assertive counterpart, there is every chance they will also fill the power vacuum being created from Cairo to Tripoli.
Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous nation, with a long tradition, like Tunisia, of tolerant and liberal Islam. The slogans on placards gave the West plenty of cause for hope, as did the westernised Egyptians who tweeted their commentary in English.
But placards are a poor proxy for the vox populi. In fact, the social decay during Hosni Mubarak’s three decades in power strongly increased the Islamists’ appeal — which Mubarak, in turn, exaggerated to keep Washington’s calls for reform at a whisper.
One month before Mubarak’s downfall, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Egyptians support stoning as a punishment for adultery, hand amputation for theft, and death for those who convert from Islam to another religion.
Sensing their moment may be nigh, the Muslim Brotherhood — harbouring a long-cherished goal of establishing an Islamist state in Egypt — is already increasing its sway in the post-revolutionary land of the Pharaohs.
Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the fundamentalist group’s spiritual guide made famous by his weekly television show on Al Jazeera, visited Cairo recently to deliver a political sermon to a five million-strong crowd of the Egyptian faithful in Tahrir Square.
If, as seems inevitable, the Brotherhood gains sway over the government by joining in a coalition when parliamentary elections are held, it will find itself in a position to put the institutional heft of the Egyptian state behind its puritanical agenda.
This would dismay most Egyptians who, while vaguely sympathetic to the Brotherhood’s goals, for the most part have no longing to live in an Iranian-style theocracy. But neither did the Iranians before the ayatollahs took power.
As a hint of what might be in store for Egypt, consider the city of Alexandria.
Once it was a cosmopolitan summer resort famous for its secular, carefree atmosphere. Now it is about the least fun place to live in North Africa.
All Muslim women in the city are veiled — among the young, often for fear of otherwise being labelled a whore.
Violence between local Christians and Muslims is commonplace (23 Christians were killed by a bomb planted in a Coptic Orthodox church on New Year’s Day). Most bars have stopped serving alcohol, and the only women to be found on the beaches, even in the height of summer, are those taking care of their children — and they are invariably covered from head to toe in black.
It is a great mistake to assume democracy is an enemy of Islamism. When the gift of democracy is unwrapped in the Arab world, Islamists frequently spring out of the box.
The jihadis may be despised by most Muslims, but often in Arab countries, only about 20 to 40 per cent of the population vote. It is by no means impossible for the Islamists to secure a majority from the minority because their supporters are the most fanatical.
W hatever the theory of democratisation in the Arab world, the history is clear: where democracy, however tentatively, has already been introduced, it is the Islamists who have come to power.
Democracy came to Morocco, and now the fundamentalist Party for Justice and Development (PJD) increases its number of seats at each election: it is only a matter of time before the party forms a majority in parliament.
Democracy came to Gaza, and the Islamist group Hamas took power. In Bahrain, following democratic reforms a decade ago, there is now a fundamentalist Sunni block dominating the elected chamber — despite the fact that the country’s population is 70 per cent Shia.
Ditto Yemen. Even in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was officially outlawed, the group won a quarter of the parliamentary seats up for grabs six years ago.
But the Islamists seldom want to take control of the government machine; they have little interest in setting tax or energy policy. The influence they seek is cultural totalitarianism.
Bereft of sensible — let alone practical — solutions to the real ills that plague their societies, they aim to Islamise society from below. And principally by tackling a subject close to everyone’s heart: sex.
The events in Tunisia are merely an echo of what has been happening in the region for a decade. In Yemen, Islamists have long since been busy raiding alleged brothels and campaigning against all other forms of what they denounce — wrongly — as imported western decadence.
In Bahrain, too, the Islamists have explicitly dedicated themselves to clamping down on prostitution and the sale of alcohol.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the Islamists have quickly ruled out running for the all-important presidency. They do not seek to lead a government, because with that power comes responsibility and accountability.
What they need is a government sufficiently biddable to allow them to impose their cultural tyranny — and to succeed, they don’t need majority support. All the Islamists require is to be louder, more forceful and better organised than their opponents.
It would be foolish to argue that Arabs are somehow incapable of stable democratic government. There is, indeed, a chance that they are setting out on a turbulent path to a brighter future, free from repressive dogma.
But in a region that confounds analysts’ predictions on a daily basis, only one thing can be said with certainty: it is far too soon to declare any kind of triumph.
John R. Bradley is the author of Inside Egypt: The Land Of The Pharaohs On The Brink Of A Revolution (2008) and Behind The Veil of Vice: The Business And Culture of Sex In The Middle East (2010).
© The Spectator