In some countries, regimes will be toppled, in others they will survive. Forces that have been defeated are unlikely to have been crushed. They will regroup and try to fight back. The balance of power is not clear-cut. Victory does not necessarily strengthen the victor.
Those in power occupy the state, but it is an asset that might prove of limited value. Inherently weak and with meager legitimacy, Arab states tend to be viewed by their citizens with suspicion, extraneous bodies superimposed on more deeply rooted, familiar social structures with long, continuous histories. They enjoy neither the acceptability nor the authority of their counterparts elsewhere. Where uprisings occur, the ability of these states to function weakens further as their coercive power erodes.
To be in the seat of power need not mean to exercise power. In Lebanon, the pro-West March 14 coalition, invigorated while in opposition, was deflated after it formed the cabinet in 2005. Hezbollah has never been more on the defensive or enjoyed less moral authority than since it became the major force behind the government. Those out of power face fewer constraints. They have the luxury to denounce their rulers’ failings, the freedom that comes with the absence of responsibility. In a porous, polarized Middle East, they enjoy access to readily available outside support.
To be in charge, to operate along formal, official, state channels, can encumber as much as empower. Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 did not curb its influence; Damascus simply exerted it more surreptitiously, without public glare and accountability. Tomorrow, a similar pattern might hold in Syria itself. The regime’s collapse would be a significant blow to Iran and Hezbollah, but one can wonder how devastating. The day after such a long and violent conflict is more likely to witness chaos than stability, a scramble for power rather than a strong central government. Defeated and excluded political forces will seek help from any source and solicit foreign patrons regardless of their identity. To exploit disorder is a practice in which Iran and Hezbollah are far better versed than their foes. Without a Syrian regime whose interests they need to take into account and whose constraints they need to abide by, they might be able to act more freely.
The Muslim Brotherhood prevails. The newly elected Egyptian president comes from their ranks. They rule in Tunisia. They control Gaza. They have gained in Morocco. In Syria and Jordan too, their time might come.
The Muslim Brotherhood prevails: those are weighty and, not long ago, unthinkable, unutterable words. The Brothers survived eighty years in the underground and the trenches, hounded, tortured, and killed, forced to compromise and bide their time. The fight between Islamism and Arab nationalism has been long, tortuous, and bloody. Might the end be near?
World War I and the ensuing European imperial ascent halted four centuries of Islamic Ottoman rule. With fits and starts, the next century would be that of Arab nationalism. To many, this was an alien, unnatural, inauthentic Western import—a deviation that begged to be rectified. Forced to adjust their views, the Islamists acknowledged the confines of the nation-state and irreligious rule. But their targets remained the nationalist leaders and their disfigured successors.
Last year, they helped topple the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, the pale successors of the original nationalists. The Islamists had more worthy and dangerous adversaries in mind. They struck at Ben Ali and Mubarak, but the founding fathers—Habib Bourguiba and Gamal Abdel Nasser—were in their sights. They reckon they have corrected history. They have revived the era of musulmans sans frontières.
What will all this mean? The Islamists are loath either to share power achieved at high cost or to squander gains so patiently acquired. They must balance among their own restive rank-and-file, a nervous larger society, and an undecided international community. The temptation to strike fast pulls in one direction; the desire to reassure tugs in another. In general, they will prefer to eschew coercion, awaken the people to their dormant Islamic nature rather than foist it upon them. They will try to do it all: rule, enact social transformations incrementally, and be true to themselves without becoming a menace to others.
The Islamists propose a bargain. In exchange for economic aid and political support, they will not threaten what they believe are core Western interests: regional stability, Israel, the fight against terror, energy flow. No danger to Western security. No commercial war. The showdown with the Jewish state can wait. The focus will be on the slow, steady shaping of Islamic societies. The US and Europe may voice concern, even indignation at such a domestic makeover. But they’ll get over it. Just as they got over the austere fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia. Bartering—as in, we’ll take care of your needs, let us take care of ours—Islamists feel, will do the trick. Looking at history, who can blame them?
Mubarak was toppled in part because he was viewed as excessively subservient to the West, yet the Islamists who succeed him might offer the West a sweeter because more sustainable deal. They think they can get away with what he could not. Stripped of his nationalist mantle, Mubarak had little to fall back on; he was a naked autocrat. The Muslim Brothers by comparison have a much broader program—moral, social, cultural. Islamists feel they can still follow their convictions, even if they are not faithfully anti-Western. They can moderate, dilute, defer.
Unlike the close allies of the West they have replaced, Islamists are heard calling for NATO military intervention in Libya yesterday, Syria today, wherever they entertain the hope to take over tomorrow. One can use the distant infidels, who will not stay around for long, to jettison local infidels, who have hounded them for decades. Rejection of foreign interference, once a centerpiece of the post-independence outlook, is no longer the order of the day. It is castigated as counterrevolutionary.
What the US sought to obtain over decades through meddling and imposition, it might now obtain via acquiescence: Arab regimes that will not challenge Western interests. Little wonder that many in the region are persuaded that America was complicit in the Islamists’ rise, a quiet partner in what has been happening.
Everywhere, Israel faces the rise of Islam, of militancy, of radicalism. Former allies are gone; erstwhile foes reign supreme. But the Islamists have different and broader objectives. They wish to promote their Islamic project, which means consolidating their rule where they can, refraining from alienating the West, and avoiding perilous and precocious clashes with Israel. In this scheme, the presence of a Jewish state is and will remain intolerable, but it is probably the last piece of a larger puzzle that may never be fully assembled.
The quest to establish an independent, sovereign Palestinian state was never at the heart of the Islamist project. Hamas, the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, harbors grander, less territorially confined but also less immediately achievable designs. Despite Hamas’s circumlocutions and notwithstanding its political evolution, it never truly deviated from its original view—the Jewish state is illegitimate and all the land of historic Palestine is inherently Islamic. If the current balance of power is not in your favor, wait and do what you can to take care of the disparity. The rest is tactics.
The Palestinian question has been the preserve of the Palestinian national movement. As of the late 1980s, its declared goal became a sovereign state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Alternatives, whether interim or temporary, have been flatly rejected. The Islamists’ plan may be more ambitious and grandiose but more flexible and elastic. For them, a diminutive, amputated state, hemmed in by Israel, dependent on its goodwill, predicated on its recognition, and entailing an end to the conflict, is not worth fighting for.
They can live with a range of transient arrangements: an interim agreement; a long-term truce, or hudna; a possible West Bank confederation with Jordan, with Gaza moving toward Egypt. All will advance the further Islamization of Palestinian society. All permit Hamas to turn to its social, cultural, and religious agenda, its true calling. All allow Hamas to maintain the conflict with Israel without having to wage it. None violates Hamas’s core tenets. It can put its ultimate goal on hold. Someday, the time for Palestine, for Jerusalem may come. Not now.
In the age of Arab Islamism, Israel may find Hamas’s purported intransigence more malleable than Fatah’s ostensible moderation. Israel fears the Islamic awakening. But the more immediate threat could be to the Palestinian national movement. There is no energy left in the independence project; associated with the old politics and long-worn-out leaderships, it has expended itself. Fatah and the PLO will have no place in the new world. The two-state solution is no one’s primary concern. It might expire not because of violence, settlements, or America’s inexpert role. It might perish of indifference.
An Islamist era that picks up where the Ottoman Empire left off, the shutting down of the nationalist interlude, is far from preordained. The Brotherhood flourished in opposition largely because it remained secretive, displayed patience, and ensured internal obedience. It built up influence through years of quiet labor and struggle. Once Islamists compete for power, many of their assets become obsolete. They must move openly because politics are more transparent, adjust quickly because of fast-paced change, and cope with diversity within their ranks because the system has become more plural.
Tunisia’s ruling Islamists must make a choice regarding Islam’s place in the new constitution; if they opt for a more moderate outcome, they will infuriate the Salafists, fail to reassure the non-Islamists, and befuddle countless of their own. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faces attacks from secularists for injecting too much religion into public life and from Salafists for not injecting enough. Members split to join more moderate expressions of Islamism or more rigorous ones. The Brotherhood’s emphasis on free-market economics and the middle class does not play well to the underprivileged.
The new Islamist language, insofar as it emphasizes freedom, democracy, elections, and human rights, earns praise in the West but skepticism from critics. These might only be words but words can matter; they can take on a life of their own, force policy changes, make it difficult to renege. At that point, the Brotherhood can become the party it says it is, and then what will remain of its Islamism? Or it can persist as the movement it has been, and then what will remain of its pragmatism? Historically a tightly regimented transnational organization, the Brotherhood no longer speaks with one voice inside a country any more than it does across borders. As power beckons, each branch has different, often competing, political priorities and concerns.
Islamists also face the dilemmas of foreign policy. Egypt’s new assertiveness, its attempt at a more independent diplomacy, could put it at odds with the West. Its apparent decision to suspend its anti-Western and anti-Israeli positions risks alienating its public. Many Egyptians crave more than a Mubarak ornamented with Koranic verses.
Islamists prospered in opposition because they could blame others; they could suffer in power because others will blame them. Dilute their domestic and foreign agenda, and they may well lose their rank-and-file; pursue it and they will alienate non-Islamists and the West. Postpone the struggle against Israel, and their rhetoric will appear disconnected from their policy; wage it, and their policy will appear dangerous to their new allies in the West. If they explain that their moderation is tactical, they will expose themselves; stay silent and they will confuse the base. There are only so many contradictions they can simultaneously straddle in this Olympian balancing act. The power of political Islam flowed chiefly from not exercising it. Its recent successes could signal the eve of its decline. How much simpler was life on the other side.
Amid chaos and uncertainty, the Islamists alone offer a familiar, authentic vision for the future. They might fail or falter, but who will pick up the mantle? Liberal forces have a weak lineage, slim popular support, and hardly any organizational weight. Remnants of the old regime are familiar with the ways of power yet they seem drained and exhausted. If instability spreads, if economic distress deepens, they could benefit from a wave of nostalgia. But they face long odds, bereft of an argument other than that things used to be bad, but now are worse.
That leaves an assortment of nationalists, anti-imperialists, old-fashioned leftists, and Nasserites. Theirs was the sole legitimate ideology in the Arab world, invoked by those who fought colonialism and by those who replaced the colonial powers. Similar ideas have been invoked too, unwittingly but unmistakably, by the demonstrators and protesters of these past months who spoke of dignity, independence, and social justice, and thus borrowed from the same ideological lexicon as those they eventually ousted.
This non-Islamist, “progressive” outlook has roots, appeal, and foot soldiers; it lacks organization and resources and has suffered from having been so thoroughly tainted and corrupted by generations that ruled in its name. Can it reinvent itself? If the Muslim Brotherhood plays down people’s nationalist feelings, if it ignores their aspirations to social justice, if it fails to govern effectively, an opening might arise. The more nationalist, progressive worldview could yet stage a comeback.
A video makes the rounds. Nasser regales the crowd with the story of his encounter with the then head of the Muslim Brotherhood, who asks him to compel women to be veiled. The Egyptian leader replies: Does your daughter wear a veil? No. If you can’t control her, how do you expect me to control tens of millions of Egyptian women? He laughs and the crowd laughs with him. It is the early 1950s, over half a century ago. Today, one senses wistfulness for such humor and such bravado. History does not move forward.
Was the last century an aberrant deviation from the Arab world’s inherent Islamic trajectory? Is today’s Islamist rebirth a fleeting, anomalous throwback to a long-outmoded past? Which is the detour, which is the natural path?