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The Arab Counterrevolution

Bashar al-Assad; drawing by John Springs

For all this uncertainty, there seems little doubt—as protesters tire and as the general public tires of them—in what direction the balance will tilt. After the dictator falls, incessant political upheaval carries inordinate economic and security costs and most people long for order and safety. The young street demonstrators challenge the status quo, ignite a revolutionary spirit, and point the way for a redistribution of power. But what they possess in enthusiasm they lack in organization and political experience. What gives them strength during the uprising—their amorphous character and impulsiveness—leads to their subsequent undoing. Their domain is the more visible and publicized. The real action, much to their chagrin, takes place elsewhere.

The outcome of the Arab awakening will not be determined by those who launched it. The popular uprisings were broadly welcomed, but they do not neatly fit the social and political makeup of traditional communities often organized along tribal and kinship ties, where religion has a central part and foreign meddling is the norm. The result will be decided by other, more calculating and hard-nosed forces.

Nationalists and leftists will make a bid, but their reputation has been sullied for having stood for a promise already once betrayed. Liberal, secular parties carry scant potential; the appeal they enjoy in the West is inversely proportional to the support they possess at home. Fragments of the old regime retain significant assets: the experience of power; ties to the security services; economic leverage; and local networks of clients. They will be hard to dislodge, but much of the protesters’ ire is directed at them and they form easy targets. They can survive and thrive, but will need new patrons and protectors.

That leaves two relatively untarnished and powerful forces. One is the military, whose positions, as much as anything, have molded the course of events. In Libya and Yemen, they split between regime and opposition supporters, which contributed to a stalemate of sorts. In Syria, they so far have sided with the regime; should that change, much will change with it. In Egypt, although closely identified with the former regime, they dissociated themselves in time, sided with the protesters, and emerged as central power brokers. They are in control, a position at once advantageous and uncomfortable. Their preference is to rule without the appearance of ruling, in order to maintain their privileges while avoiding the limelight and accountability. To that end, they have tried to reach understandings with various political groups. If they do not succeed, a de facto military takeover cannot be ruled out.

And then there are the Islamists. They see the Arab awakening as their golden opportunity. This was not their revolution nor was it their idea. But, they hope, this is their time.


From all corners of the Arab world, Islamists of various tendencies are coming in from the cold. Virtually everywhere they are the largest single group as well as the best organized. In Egypt and Tunisia, where they had been alternatively—and sometimes concurrently—tolerated and repressed, they are full-fledged political actors. In Libya, where they had been suppressed, they joined and played a major part in the rebellion. In Syria, where they had been massacred, they are a principal component of the protest movement.

Living in the wilderness has equipped them well. Years of waiting has taught them patience, the cornerstone of their strategy. They learned the art of survival and of compromise for the sake of survival. They are the only significant political force with a vision and program unsullied, because untested, by the exercise of, or complicity in, power. Their religious language and moral code resonate deeply with large parts of the population. Islamism provides an answer to people who feel they have been prevented from being themselves.

Islamists know the alarm they inspire at home and abroad and the price they formerly paid for it. In the early 1990s, when the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front was on the cusp of a resounding electoral triumph, the army intervened. The world stood aside. A civil war and tens of thousands of casualties later, Algeria’s Islamists have yet to recover. After Hamas’s parliamentary victory in Palestine in 2006, it was ostracized by the world and prevented from governing.

The lesson seems clear: the safest path to power can be to avoid its unabashed exercise. With this history in mind, the Islamists might want to stay away from the front lines. In Egypt, some Brotherhood leaders made it plain that they will regulate their share of the parliamentary vote, preferring to sit in the legislature without controlling it. They will not run for high-profile offices, such as the presidency. They will build coalitions. They will lead from behind.

The Islamists are on a mission to reassure. They might play down controversial religious aspects of their project, with emphasis less on Islamic law than on good governance and the fight against corruption, a free-market economy and a pluralistic political system that guarantees human and gender rights. They will argue for a more assertive and independent foreign policy, but might at the same time strive for good relations with the West. They will be skeptical about peace agreements with Israel but they will neither abrogate them nor push for open hostility to the Jewish state. The model they will hold out will be closer to Erdogan’s Turkey than to the ayatollahs’ Iran or the Taliban’s Afghanistan though, since they lack Turkey’s political culture and institutions, the model they eventually build will be their own.

Quietly, the Islamists might present themselves as the West’s most effective allies against its most dangerous foes: armed jihadists, whom they have the religious legitimacy to contain and, if necessary, cripple; and Iran, whose appeal to the Arab street they can counteract by not shunning the Islamic Republic and presenting a less aggressive, more attractive, and indigenous Islamic model. There are precedents: in the 1950s and 1960s, Islamists in the region sided with the West and Saudi Arabia against Nasser’s Egypt; not long ago they supported Jordan’s monarch against the PLO and domestic dissidents; and, today, Islamist Turkey is both in Washington’s good graces and an active NATO member.

Their quest will not be without challenges. The flip side of their extensive experience of opposition is that they have no experience in governing. Their knowledge of economics is rudimentary. Should they be called upon to participate in affairs of state, their reputation will suffer at a time of predictable popular disillusionment and economic turmoil. The combination of high expectations and unfulfilled promises may expose them to protests they are ill-suited to endure.

The prospect of power and the taste of freedom are testing the Islamists’ legendary discipline and unity. In Egypt in particular, several fissures have opened. Young Muslim Brothers chide their elders for their conservatism, ambivalence toward street protests, and overly cozy relationship with the military. There are grumblings and splinter organizations. Warnings from the past notwithstanding, some Islamists may want to exercise as much power as the movement can gain. There are tensions between those drawn to allying with secular parties and those willing to join with the more puritan and militant Salafists whose Islamism is based on literalist readings of scripture.

Other cracks could appear. Those conditioned by a deeply ingrained suspicion of the US will be reluctant to engage with Washington and will prefer an understanding with Tehran. Others will hope to roll back Shiite power; still others might turn to Riyadh. The Syrian branch of the Brotherhood, which has suffered under the rule of the Iranian-backed Assad regime, is likely to consider any rapprochement with Tehran unthinkable. Islamists could make different calculations in Yemen or Jordan, should they help overthrow their respective pro-Western regimes.

The thorniest challenge to the traditional middle-of-the-road Islamists will come from the Salafists. Their focus traditionally has been on individual morals and behavior and they have tended to oppose party and electoral politics. Yet they have undergone remarkable change. In Egypt, they have established a strong grassroots political presence, created a number of political parties, and plan to compete in elections. Elsewhere, they are actively participating in protests, at times violently. The more traditional Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, bend their views to placate foreign or domestic concerns, the more they take part in governing, the more they risk alienating those of their followers drawn to Salafism and its stricter interpretation of Islam. As the Muslim Brotherhood struggles to strike a balance, the Salafists could emerge as unintended beneficiaries. In Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, the most significant future rivalry is unlikely to be between Islamists and so-called pro-democracy secular forces. It might well be between mainstream Islamists and Salafists.


Of all the features of the initial Arab uprisings, the more notable relate to what they were not. They were not spearheaded by the military, engineered from outside, backed by a powerful organization, or equipped with a clear vision and leadership. Nor, remarkably, were they violent. The excitement generated by these early revolutionary moments owed as much to what they lacked as to what they possessed. The absence of those attributes is what allowed so many, especially in the West, to believe that the spontaneous celebrations they were witnessing would translate into open, liberal, democratic societies.

Revolutions devour their children. The spoils go to the resolute, the patient, who know what they are pursuing and how to achieve it. Revolutions almost invariably are short-lived affairs, bursts of energy that destroy much on their pathway, including the people and ideas that inspired them. So it is with the Arab uprising. It will bring about radical changes. It will empower new forces and marginalize others. But the young activists who first rush onto the streets tend to lose out in the skirmishes that follow. Members of the general public might be grateful for what they have done. They often admire them and hold them in high esteem. But they do not feel they are part of them. The usual condition of a revolutionary is to be tossed aside.

The Arab world’s immediate future will very likely unfold in a complex tussle between the army, remnants of old regimes, and the Islamists, all of them with roots, resources, as well as the ability and willpower to shape events. Regional parties will have influence and international powers will not refrain from involvement. There are many possible outcomes—from restoration of the old order to military takeover, from unruly fragmentation and civil war to creeping Islamization. But the result that many outsiders had hoped for—a victory by the original protesters—is almost certainly foreclosed.

After some hesitation, the US and others have generally taken the side of the protesters. Several considerations were at work, among them the hope that this support will strengthen those most liable to espouse pro-Western views and curry favor with those most likely to take the helm. New rulers might express gratitude toward those who stood by them. But any such reflex probably will be short-lived. The West likely will awake to an Arab world whose rulers are more representative and assertive, but not more sympathetic or friendly.

The French and the British helped liberate the Arab world from four centuries of Ottoman rule; the US enabled the Afghan Mujahideen to liberate themselves from Soviet domination and freed the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Before long, yesterday’s liberators became today’s foes. Things are not as they seem. The sound and fury of revolutionary moments can dull the senses and obscure the more ruthless struggles going on in the shadows.

—August 31, 2011

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