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The novelty of this wave goes beyond its scale into its social and cultural alignments. These
are the first major democratic ruptures to occur in the Arab world, which is more distant cultur-
ally from the West than were Latin America and Eastern Europe. The success of Islamist politi-
cal movements also lends an ideological colouring very different from earlier waves. This
contrast leads many in the western establishment (for example, Ehrenfeld, 2011; Muravchik,
2011; Trager, 2011) to lament the illiberal ‘toxicity of Arab political culture’. They suggest that
the Muslim Brotherhood’s embrace of democracy, for example, is mere ‘chameleonlike’ insin-
cerity, concealing a ‘bloody history and declared goals of imposing shariah across the globe’.
Journalistic coverage of the Egyptian revolution (for example, McGrath, 2011) has tended to
play up sectarian conflict, including periodic flare-ups of violence against the 10–15 per cent
Coptic Christian minority. The steady growth of influence by Islamists such as the Muslim
Brotherhood and conservative Salafis since the 1980s is seen by many as a cause of sectarian
strife. This discourse occurs against the backdrop of many years during which the regime of
Hosni Mubarak, including in official media coverage, tarred Islamists of all stripes with the
sectarian and ‘extremist’ brush (Iskander, 2012). Such has also been the discourse of the junta
after the July 2013 coup.
Huntington (1997) is representative of many who doubt the democratic potential of traditional-
ist currents within the Muslim world. He argued that new electoral democracies often suffer from
pandering to sectarian sentiment. These transitions might end in majoritarian imposition, the
oppression of religious minorities, and xenophobic insularity. Yet growing evidence suggests oth-
erwise. For several years before the Arab Spring, Islamist movements had allied with Christians
and leftists against authoritarian regimes (Abdelrahman, 2009; Clark, 2010; Furman, 2000;
Schwedler, 2007; Stilt, 2010; Wickham, 2004). This pattern recurred in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen.
Diverse views exist on whether such alliances moderate, or ‘tame’, Islamist movements. Boukhars
(2011) and Roy (2012) argue that they are less ideologically monistic than they are often portrayed
to be. More fine-grained accounts (Glain, 2011; Sawhney, 2008) of internal divisions within
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood confirm that younger members have a more pluralistic vision of
Islamic democracy. Indeed, the protests that toppled Mubarak in 2011 included a diverse coalition
of Islamists and non-Islamists.
What these ad hoc alliances and ideological adaptations mean remains to be seen, given the
recent vicissitudes of democracy in the region. But when we move beyond the nation-state as a unit
of analysis, a bigger question arises. The misgivings of many onlookers about this social base rest
on an assumption that it is predisposed to intolerance and insularity. In other words, traditionalists
such as the Islamists are seen as being at odds with globalisation and cosmopolitanism. This view
has a long genealogy. The global liberal narrative has treated the Islamic world as a stubborn hold-
out since the end of the cold war (Falk, 1997). More broadly, the purported clash between insular
traditionalists and globally minded individualists has been highlighted. Franck (2001), for exam-
ple, drew ‘battle lines between the forces of communitarian conformity and the growing network
of free-thinking, autonomy-asserting individualists everywhere’.
In this article, I shall use the term ‘traditionalists’ to denote those who frame their political and
social aspirations with reference to an enduring ethical tradition. In the Arab Spring, Islam has
occupied a central position, but traditionalism in general (and the critical depiction of it in liberal
discourse) recurs across civilisations. I want to call into question this alleged tension between cos-
mopolitanism and politically assertive traditionalism. Among some of the Arab Spring activists, I
find evidence of a new kind of cosmopolitan traditionalism linked to opportunities opened up by
the democratic transition.
First, I suggest that this wave of revolutions represents the global rise of new social forces
for which cosmopolitan traditionalism is likely to be particularly relevant. Second, I elaborate