As moderate Islamists retreat, extremists surge unchecked

Thwarted by the old guard and eclipsed by the jihadists, moderate Islamists in Egypt, Libya and Yemen and among the Syrian opposition are finding themselves shoved to the margins. And they are debating what went wrong, how to salvage their movement and how to revive the dream of synthesizing Islam and democracy. In Syria, too, moderate and secular rebels have been eclipsed by extremists in their battle against President Bashar al-Assad.

Many are lashing out furiously at the fundamentalists whom many moderate politicians hoped to tutor as political allies. Instead Egypt’s ultraconservative Salafis supported the military takeover, saying that it would limit social strife. And in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia, the violence of ultraconservative militants is hobbling efforts to build inclusive democratic states.

Some moderates play down their own mistakes, and insist that the main lessons to be learned are about the strength of their enemies, not their own shortcomings. Or they portray the reversal of their fortunes — even the killing of more than 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters by Egyptian security forces — as a kind of divinely ordained test to be endured.

But others, led by the moderate Islamists here in Tunisia, argue that the movement is partly to blame.