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The Next Arab Challenge

Two years after the Middle East revolts, the Obama administration has mounted no real effort to understand the dynamics of political Islam.


A democratic uprising replaced Egypt’s government with the Muslim Brotherhood. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

Ibrahim el-Houdaiby is exactly the sort of man the United States needs on its side these days. A 29-year-old graduate of the American University in Cairo, he is one of the firebrands who decamped to Tahrir Square, and he now opposes rule by both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military. Houdaiby is an Islamist, not a Jeffersonian democrat. He believes passionately in sharia, or religious law, and the “totality of Islam” in governing the lives of believers like himself. In fact, he is Islamist royalty: His great-grandfather Hassan el-Houdaiby was once the brotherhood’s supreme leader, and his grandfather held the same post. But last year, young el-Houdaiby left the brotherhood in protest. Now he preaches a new, open kind of Islamism—one that doesn’t impose anything “against the will of the people.”

Ibrahim el-Houdaiby, who is trying to keep the original spirit of the Arab Spring alive, is what Americans might call a “good Islamist.” Consider, by contrast, Mokhtar Belmokhtar of Algeria. He, like Houdaiby, was a leader inspired and empowered by the political chaos of revolution. But Belmokhtar, 40, who may have died recently at the hands of Chadian troops, might be deemed a “bad Islamist.” Nobody paid much attention to him until he organized a raid on a BP gas facility in January that resulted in the deaths of 37 hostages. He is part of the terrorist “Pandora’s box” (Hillary Rodham Clinton’s description) that opened up in North Africa, Syria, Yemen, and other places where the autocrats have been ousted. And he is more proof—joining the agitators who killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, in Benghazi, on Sept. 11, 2012—that al-Qaida keeps generating new cells, like dragon’s teeth.


The protesters who ousted or threatened Arab dictators in the past two years—their uprisings have been euphemized as a “Spring,” like so many other democratic movements—have not produced governments that are channeling Western ideals of secular democracy. They are yielding, instead, to a new power elite who believe in some form of political Islam (a concept alien to the West), whether by vote or by force. Now the West will face new interlocutors there—reductively speaking: good Islamists and bad Islamists. And American strategists, until now, have done a very poor job of figuring out which are which, and what to do about them.

Shocked by the abruptness of the uprisings, the Obama administration has responded fitfully for two years, mostly improvising. First, it defended its old autocratic allies, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s Ali Saleh. Then it moved to championing the young secularists in the street, with visions of liberal democracy that now look as naive as the visions of the George W. Bush-era neoconservatives. More recently, after the election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, the administration has lurched in yet another direction, embracing the Islamist president and the Brotherhood, even to the exclusion of secularists, says Michele Dunne of the Atlantic Council.

What Dunne and other experts would like to see instead is a steadier policy based on set principles—beginning with “tough love” for Morsi after his recent efforts to crush protest. “Washington’s response to this crisis has largely been business as usual,” Dunne and Robert Kagan wrote in The Washington Post recently. “Just as the United States once clung to Mubarak, the Obama administration has hewed closely to Morsi, offering a visit to Washington and continuing to deliver the annual $1.3 billion in military assistance, including a recent shipment of F-16 aircraft.” In an interview, Dunne adds, “We always seem to be attaching ourselves to individual, small groups of people, ruling cliques.” The better approach is to stand up for standards, principles, and a proper system of government—and try to make it stick by frankly tying U.S. economic support to democratic progress.


On the eve of Barack Obama’s first trip to the region as a second-term president, this is not happening with any consistency. Instead, Obama appears to be approaching Morsi in much the same shallow, realpolitik way he once dealt with Mubarak—seeking to cultivate a friendly government-to-government alliance, paying lip service to democracy and human rights, but essentially leaving Egypt’s internal chaos to sort itself out. In so doing, the United States may be sacrificing future natural allies among the secularists, and leaving important developments in the region to chance when it could influence them with smart policies. “You [in the U.S.] have supported … military rule, and now you are supporting a religious rule just because it serves your interests,” Gameela Ismail, a spokeswoman for the main secular alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, told The Wall Street Journal recently. In Turkey, Obama blithely looks the other way as President Recep Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party strong-arm the Turkish judiciary, says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a conservative expert in the Middle East and a former CIA analyst.

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