With the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, a wall of fear has fallen in the Middle East. Since the self-immolation of Muhammad Bouazizi on December 17, 2010, history has taken a new turn. People demonstrated for three weeks—at first in the towns of Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, and Thala, then in other cities, and eventually in Tunis, the capital. These demonstrations forced former Tunisian president Ben Ali to flee the country, which he did on January 14, 2011. Under the pressure of the demonstrators, the first interim government had to let go of most representatives of the ancien régime on January 27, even though its pillars—the party that used to hold power and the police—remain in existence. The Tunisian revolution, as a revolution of ordinary people, inspired the demonstrations in Egypt, leading to Mubarak’s fall. It has opened the Tunisian people’s political imagination, which had been foreclosed by the elites in power, with the support of Tunisia’s European and American allies. This new narrative of change through popular revolution has expressed what was previously impossible to say openly: that a radical regime change is necessary and must lead to individual freedom (both economic and political), political representation, and government accountability. The self-immolation of Muhammad Bouazizi made manifest the economic and political plight of the Tunisian youth and the people’s distrust of a state that had humiliated them, repressed all dissent, and practiced corruption at all levels since the country became independent in 1956. Tunisians and Egyptians have expressed their desire to become citizens, rather than subjects, of their states.

However, another wall is still standing: the widely perceived threat of the “Islamic state.” Observers in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East worry that these revolutions could morph into “religious revolutions” and lead to “Islamic states.” They invariably ask: “What is the role of the Islamists?” “Will they take over the state?” These fears are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the popular mobilizations in Tunisia and Egypt, of the relation between Islam and politics in the modern Arab Middle East, and on a narrow political imagination. These observers believe that Tunisia and Egypt can be one of only two things: a “secular” dictatorship or an Islamic republic on the Iranian model. This paradigm is plain wrong.

Firstly, the protests in Tunisia and Egypt were based on demands that were deeply political—in a context of high unemployment, widespread corruption, and great economic plight—and that had little to do with the alternative between secularism and Islamism. Few if any slogans echoing Islamist, leftist, or secularist projects were heard during the demonstrations, even if members of the Islamist, liberal, and leftist oppositions participated. Like the rest of the world, Islamist movements were taken by surprise by the youth’s strong engagement in the streets. Islamists in both countries kept a low profile at the beginning of the demonstrations, partly for strategic reasons: they did not want to be cited as a pretext for the repression of the movement. “Work, freedom and national dignity” (shughl, hurriyya, karama wataniyya) was the slogan most repeated by protesters in Tunisia. Draped in national flags, the Tunisians, like the Egyptians, chanted their national anthem in the streets: “if one day the people desire life, destiny must answer the call.” Sung by men and women marching in the streets of Tunisian cities, the national anthem contributed to a widely shared narrative in which the people were both the subject and the object of a new national liberation, this time not from a foreign occupier but from internal oppression.

This narrative of liberation from oppression resonates deeply with the classical political vocabulary of Islam as well as with liberal views about freedom. The Islamic vocabulary of resistance to oppression uses the concept of nasiha, advice or admonition to the sovereign. Nasiha demands courage and determination for those who use it against an oppressive tyrant. The demands of the Tunisians and Egyptians can also be read in terms of the European conception of democracy, which recognizes the political significance of “the people” (al-sha‘b) as a sum of individual preferences. Tunisians and Egyptians have been living under the weight of authoritarian, inefficient, and corrupt modern state bureaucracies endowed with a pervasive and often brutal power over people’s private lives and bodies. In both countries, the hallmark institutions of liberal democracy—elections and political parties, in particular—have been emptied of their true meaning. Despite their chambers of representatives and frequent elections, which are all tailored for the continuity of authoritarianism, the only counter-power left in Egypt and Tunisia today is that of the people. Tunisians and Egyptians demand the end of oppression and corruption, and an ethical political life, but during the uprisings, they did not take pains to explicitly use one genealogy of freedom—Islamic or liberal—over the other, because, for them, resistance to oppression is not defined by its cultural origins. It is not that “secularists” and “Islamists”—who are typically seen as the two main political camps in Tunisia and Egypt—have built a temporary alliance for the sake of revolutionary success. Rather, a new generation has taken the lead of political protest and has directly confronted the state with narratives that transcend those usually used by these two camps. This does not mean that members of the secularist and Islamist constituencies will not emerge and re-articulate their old discourses. They have already done so. However, a younger generation has opened up the possibility of a new political order in which these two constituencies will be less salient.

Secondly, contrary to what is often assumed, the Egyptian and Tunisian states are not “secular.” Their constitutions (since 1923, for Egypt, and 1959, for Tunisia) state that “Islam is the religion of the state.” In Egypt, since 1980, Article 2 has also stated that “the principles of Islamic sharia” are “the main source of legislation.” These post-colonial regimes have always engaged with religion, producing and trying to impose on their people their own interpretations of Islam. They have controlled and reformed religious institutions and built their own religious establishments. The Tunisian and Egyptian regimes have accomplished this in different ways, according to their specific histories. However, both have used Islam as a tool for social engineering, and they have, at the same time, attempted to separate political dissent from religious inspiration, forbidding “the use of Islam for political aims,” in spite of their own instrumentalization of Islamic narratives and institutions. Nonetheless, these regimes are commonly seen as “secular.” Why? Because they have waged a war against Islamist movements who also seek to define politics on the basis of Islam but stand against the religious monopoly exerted by their authoritarian states. However, these states are not “secular”: they deeply and systematically engage with Islam and build an overlap between the structure of the state and religious authority. In a way, the famous formula devised by the Muslim Brotherhood, that Islam is “Din wa dawla” (religion and state), has actually been implemented at a practical level by the post-colonial state from its inception. The state is actually ahead of the Islamists in this domain. The difference, however, between the Muslim Brothers’ ideal vision of Islamic politics and the practical operations of state and religion in Tunisia and Egypt lies in the fact that these states have also organized specific regimes of secularity. They have delimited the domains that Islam is authorized to occupy, most often the “social” arena, while they have excluded Islam from the sphere of political competition—for instance, by making “religious parties” illegal. It is within and under the constraints of this regime of secularity—which instrumentalizes Islam, limits its reach and shapes its interpretations—that Islamist movements operate and express their political concepts. To give only one example, Rashid al-Ghannushi, the historical leader of the Tunisian Islamist movement al-Nahda, declared that his movement would not be a “religious party,” but a party whose reference (marja‘iyya) is Islam, using a language similar to the Turkish AKP or the Moroccan PJD. He has underlined his acceptance of the Tunisian Personal Status Code, imposed by President Bourguiba in 1956. This legal code makes polygamy and divorce by repudiation illegal, and Bourguiba took pains at the time of its drafting to articulate its content with an Islamic justification. Embedded in this general regime of secularity, the mainstreamed Islamists have shown their desire to be authorized as a political party and to take part in the electoral game in order to eventually participate in policy making. They are eager to take part in the political process, as evidenced by their cautious and ambivalent participation in the “negotiations” with the Egyptian regime before Mubarak stepped down, and by their current demands for a truly transparent and fair political system in Tunisia. This does not mean that the Islamists are necessarily willing to sacrifice their Islamic ideals in order to gain power—eventually experiencing their own “secularization”—or that their commitment to democracy is inauthentic.  Their desire for participation means that the post-colonial state’s regime of secularity, which includes Islam, has forcibly shaped the Islamists’ narratives and repertoires of action. Hence, in Tunisia and Egypt, the debate will not be one opposing a “secularist” camp advocating for separation of state and religion and an “Islamist” camp in favor of their overlap. Rather than being about whether the state can engage with Islam, the debate will be about how the state will continue to define its relationship with religion.

Thirdly, the hegemony of the state’s regime of secularity also explains why Islamists do not provide a clear description of what an “Islamic” state would be, in addition to the fact that their ruthless repression by the regimes in power has forced them to focus on strategies for survival. Sunni Islamist movements, unlike the Shi‘i mullahs who took over the state in Iran after the 1979 revolution, have not devised a precise description of Islamic governance. Based on the notion of the emulation of the religious reference (marja’ al-taqlid), Khomeini invented the concept of government by the jurist (wilayat al-faqih). In contrast, nothing resembling a clear theory of Islamic government appears in the writings of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers or the Tunisian Islamist movement (al-Nahda). They do not spell out precisely the operations that would be at play in an Islamic state. Admittedly, the elusiveness of the concept of an “Islamic state” in Sunni Islamist narratives does not mean that Islamists will be absent from the political scene in the near future. They form a strong political and social current and will participate in political competition if given the opportunity. However, they will have to come to terms with this new political power that has emerged in the region—the youth—organized on a totally different structure and focused on a critique and fundamental distrust of the authoritarian modern state. The indeterminacy of their vision for the state—when confronted with the youth’s fundamental distrust for the previous regimes—may create greater political potential than is currently imagined.

The youth’s critique of the state denounces the confiscation of all opportunities: the opportunity to work, to participate in politics, to freely and fully express political opinions, as well as to express religious piety privately and publicly, and, more broadly, the opportunity to make their own choices. It is worth stressing that these demands go beyond Tunisia, Egypt, or Iran—some of the countries that have been recently swept by protests.  Indeed, it is not just authoritarian regimes that attract these critiques throughout the world, but also liberal democracies, whose states do not always allow all types of freedoms—such as the freedom of religious expression in the public sphere—and do not ensure political and economic opportunities for all their citizens without discrimination. In that sense, Muhammad Bouazizi is more than just Tunisian.