Bob Bowker is a former Australian ambassador to Jordan and Egypt.

Antipathy between those Arabs who engage in politics and adopt lifestyles framed within an Islamic discourse ('Islamists') and those who do not underlies much of the current political contest in Egypt. It has a fundamental impact on developments in the Arab world as it wrestles with the challenges of determining what it means to be both Arab and 'modern'.

Arab Islamists and 'secularists' (for want of a more accurate contrasting label) are both subject to the influence of collective memories and political mythologies, peer and family affiliations, pedagogy and other more individual factors. Importantly, however, they see in each other the rejection of what they regard as civilizational benchmarks.

Arab secularists often argue that democracy without secularism is unworkable. Islamists contend that secularism is inauthentic anathema, and that although they may have misgivings about democracy as a concept, there are examples of such forms of government in Muslim societies.

So far as democracy is concerned, the secularists may be closer to the mark. The Islamists' preferred political approach would not necessarily constrain the electoral process in Muslim countries, but it would almost certainly inhibit the enabling systems that make democracies work: judiciaries, media, intellectual and cultural freedoms, the value accorded to difference and so on.

Whatever the outcome in Egypt, the secularist approach will remain on the defensive in the Arab world for the foreseeable future. It remains too strongly associated in the popular Arab imagination with Westernisation, with all the historical baggage and insecurities that notion generates.

Despite its historical connection to economic and social progress, secularism has failed to associate itself at the popular level with success. It cannot reconcile itself to the concept of faith-based government, the idea of which continues to enjoy popular appeal beyond the political class.

On the other hand, over time, Islamists will find themselves struggling to meet the core questions most of their increasingly educated, mobilised, connected supporters and audiences are posing. They can try to meet those demands (or perhaps, over an extended period, try to change the questions). However they are unlikely to succeed in surmounting and shaping the cumulative impact of the drivers of change in the Arab world without taking a more inclusive political approach.

Most Islamists are wary of adopting such an approach. They fear losing their ideological and political distinctiveness. They may be out-flanked politically by more conservative elements. It would also demand a change in political style and the acquisition of skills in coalition-building that were unnecessary while they were focussed on survival, proselytisation and the enforcement of organisational and ideological discipline. 

Their secular critics will be equally loathe to support any steps which appear to give credibility to the Islamists as a potential political leadership, for fear that the enabling systems of a democratic secular society would be placed at risk, and that, once damaged, they could not be repaired.

The political genies rising from bottles in Egypt are powerful reminders that change in the Arab world is unstoppable; that performance in government carries greater weight than principles; and that values of constitutionalism, while important, are not enough to protect and promote freedoms and creative space in the Arab context at present.

Photo by Flickr user yeowatzup.