Alex Bigham: Egyptians caught between pull of the West and Islamists

INTERNATIONAL support for the protests in Egypt has come from some unlikely quarters. While you'd expect qualified endorsement from leaders in the west, one of the most repressive regimes in the world has been trying to claim the uprising as its own. The Iranian state media has said the protests were inspired by the 1979 revolution, as a protest against a western backed, secular despot.

One of the most hardline clerics, Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, known locally as 'Professor Crocodile' said: "As a result of the gifts of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, freedom-loving Islamic peoples (in] Tunisia, Egypt and nearby Arab countries are standing up to their oppressive governments."

For far too long, the fear of an Islamic revolution is what allowed sclerotic governments like Egypt to maintain their authoritarian rule in the face of a cowed middle class and an acquiescent international community.

The fear has always been – as happened in Algeria and Gaza – that elections would allow the triumph of an Islamist movement, which would kick away the ladder of democracy from underneath it.

Rather than being tied to one particular ideology or religion, Egypt's protests have gathered momentum because they are broad based, with support from both the poor and middle classes.

Without one clear leader, the movement has avoided becoming fractured or co-opted by the state. This diversity and flexibility has allowed the organisers credibly to call for a million people to come on to the streets.

President Mubarak saw the danger early on, reminding himself of what happened in Iran in 2009. One of his earliest decisions was to close down the country's internet service providers to try to throttle the ability of the opposition to co-ordinate via social networks.

Most managed to get the message out by speaking to families and friends abroad who could get online or by using a new "voice-to-tweet" service set up to circumvent the ban. The movement could not be controlled, with friends calling each other and using more old fashioned methods, such as gathering a core mass at Friday prayers before heading on to the streets. But that organising nexus doesn't mean that the movement to get rid of Mubarak is being run by the Muslim Brotherhood – they were late to join the protests, so you see few Islamist slogans at the demonstrations and without a charismatic leader of their own have backed Mohammed El Baradei for the time being.

El Baradei has emerged as a consensus figure – a middle class intellectual, he is yet to prove his credibility with ordinary Egyptians and has only been seen at the street protests once, for a brief period. He is the only game in town so far, though – Mubarak's favoured successors – his son or the new Vice President and ex-spy chief are both badly compromised. Some fear that El Baradei could be a temporary liberal leader of the country – just as there was in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian revolution, but with a long-term takeover by the radicals.

But while Arab despots have argued that greater freedoms would allow the jihadists to take over, it has been young liberal groups that have taken to the streets. And political parties such as Turkey's AKP prove that Islamism isn't necessarily a watch-word for extremism.

In fact, it is because of the lack of open political space that more mature, secular opposition parties haven't emerged to compete with the Islamists. It means that the "orderly transition" will be much more difficult – the West has helped prop up a government that makes such political change trickier. Freedom is messy, to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld.

While there have been many setbacks, the history of recent times shows a steady increase in the number of democracies across the world. Middle East countries face a double squeeze – a burgeoning youth which is more educated and informed than before and huge levels of income inequality. Guaranteeing jobs and economic security in the future will prove increasingly difficult without serious political reform.

We shouldn't over-exaggerate the nature of the Egyptian regime of course. For all its failings, it is nowhere near as brutal as Iran is today or Iraq was under Saddam. Although that makes it more vulnerable to change from within.

So far Mubarak's strategy has helped him cling on. He is likely to try to reach an accommodation with the protesters in the coming days and offer fresh elections. Perhaps he will be allowed the dignity of an orderly handover.

But locals tell a joke about when Tunisia's government collapsed. Ben Ali took his plane to Cairo and went to see Mubarak. "Have you come to stay?" asked the Egyptian President. "No, I've come to pick you up."

Alex Bigham is a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre think tank.