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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)

photo of Michael Hirsh
March 14, 2013

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.

Gerecht and other critics believe that with the Arab Spring, the United States has missed a giant opportunity for renewed "soft" leadership in the region, especially during the tenure of a president with unique credentials. In Barack Hussein Obama, America has a historically unprecedented leader of Muslim heritage, who spoke eloquently in 2009 about reengaging with the Arab world. "It should have been Obama’s moment," Gerecht says. "In some ways, he was tailor-made to tackle the Great Arab Revolt. But he has lacked the insight and the passion.… He had no idea that fundamentalism had long been a mainstream movement everywhere among Muslims, and what the traditionalist-fundamentalist-secularist struggle within Islam had entailed—the great intellectual battles waged for over 100 years.”

What is most disturbing, perhaps, is that the U.S. government has mounted no real effort to study the internal dynamics of political Islam, even though this is arguably the first time since the Cold War that Washington has faced a serious geopolitical challenge from a rival ideology. Washington needs something analogous to the way George Kennan and other experts researched and debated the nature of Soviet communism at the outset of the Cold War. Ultimately, one key to outmaneuvering the Soviets was to see past communism as a monolithic enemy—to realize, for instance, that dissident forces were splitting the East Bloc, and that China’s Communists were following a different path. Even the Iranian regime has mounted an effort to study the internal dynamics of the Muslim Brotherhood.

By contrast, for the three decades since the Iranian revolution, U.S. policymakers have tended to view sharia as an uncomplicated threat—as uniformly anti-American and used to justify violent jihad. In truth, scholars say, sharia is quite a flexible tradition that could either work hand in hand with the international system (as gentler reformers such as Houdaiby seem to want) or serve as a hostile counter-ideology (as in the hands of the Iranian regime, al-Qaida, or Belmokhtar). “Sharia is structured like [Western] common law, in that it is cumulative,” says Richard Bulliet, a scholar of Islam at Columbia University. “Because it is, it has a huge historical reservoir of opinions that you can go into and select from.”

Another big mistake U.S. policymakers make is to see the Arab Spring fallout on a nation-by-nation basis, say Bulliet and other critics. That is wrong. It is, instead, a pan-Arabic phenomenon, “an ideological world that has been gestating for the last 50, 60 years as the main alternative to Arab tyranny,” Bulliet says. During this long period, “Islamists brilliantly positioned themselves as the alternative to the failed secular ‘authoritarian bargain,’ ” Fawaz Gerges, director of the Mideast Center at the London School of Economics, wrote in a recent essay, “The Islamist Moment.” “They have already won majorities of parliamentary seats in a number of countries, including Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, and will likely make further gains in Libya, Jordan, and maybe even in Syria after the dust settles.”

Larry Diamond, a democracy expert at Stanford who, like Dunne, was also consulted by the Obama team in the early days, says he’s not heard of any follow-up since then. “I see very little sign—to be blunt, no sign—of any coherent strategy to try to defend and sustain the very, very tentative democratic progress in Egypt, or, more generally, to create a more facilitating environment,” Diamond says.

As a result, America is blindly confronting potential outcomes of both great promise and great peril in the region, without a clue about how to handle them. Viewed hopefully, Morsi’s election is an unprecedented test on the world stage of whether Islamist politics can, at long last, join modernity. Can an Islamist head of state renounce violence in practice (as Hamas and Hezbollah have been unable to do)? Can he can work with the international community rather than consistently defy it (as the Iranian regime has done)? Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have already had to compromise to quell civil unrest—delaying parliamentary elections until April 27—and have pledged to observe the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Morsi has thus tacitly recognized Israel, the first Islamist leader to do so. Obama has also been able to create ties with Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, the Ennahda Movement. But that’s as far as U.S. success goes these days.

Yet the overall trend is that Arab autocrats once friendly to the U.S. are being replaced by leaders who are ideologically driven to mistrust America. As in Egypt, Syria’s exiled Muslim Brotherhood has long carried the political prestige of being the only organized group to have opposed the regime over the decades. Emblazoned in the national memory of Syrians is the massacre in the city of Hama in 1982, when the regime of then-President Hafez al-Assad ordered the deaths of tens of thousands of brotherhood loyalists. Today, the group controls about one-fourth of the Syrian National Council, the largest opposition group. And the longer Bashar al-Assad hangs on to his failing regime in Damascus, the more likely it is that the better-organized Islamist rebels will dominate the aftermath, Western diplomats fear, completing an arc of newly empowered radical groups along the southern half of the Mediterranean from Libya to Syria. This is perhaps the main reason Obama has refused to arm the rebels.

Beyond that, the chaos in Libya, the possible dissolution of Syria, the terrorist no-man’s-land in Mali—further roiling Northwest Africa—could ultimately threaten the integrity of the entire Arab and North African state system that the West created in the late 19th century and after World War I. Some U.S. officials fear these countries could break up or turn into permanently strife-ridden lands that resemble Lebanon or the postcolonial countries of Africa, such as Somalia or Congo, where tribes and ethnic groups never stop warring although the borders remain superficially intact, according to a Pentagon analyst steeped in the region who asked to speak anonymously. “The countries just become arenas for conflict,” he says. “The various groups still draw on the resources of the state, but peace never comes.”


What America needs to develop, at long last, is an all-embracing strategy for the entire Middle East, not just Palestinian peace talks on one hand and Iran’s nuclear issue on the other. This doesn’t mean something as simplistic as Kennan’s Cold War containment doctrine. That bipolar world is long gone. It means, instead, having a long-term plan for the region that offers an alternative vision to Islamist ideology—not containment, but co-optation. How can the United States integrate Islamist trends into modern Western values, bringing the economically and politically stunted Arab world, bit by bit, into the international system?

Here is where Kennan’s approach can be emulated. In one of the most celebrated analyses in American history, he divined the internal sources of conflict within the Soviet empire and projected that, with time, it would destroy itself. The key was waiting it out, applying strategic pressure, and—above all—representing an alternate ideal. “The real question is: Which system travels better?” John F. Kennedy said at the height of the Cold War. Who has the better set of ideas? In this the Obama administration has been, by its own admission, remiss. “We are losing the war of ideas because we are not in the arena the way we were in the Cold War,” then-Secretary of State Clinton told The Atlantic in May 2011.

“The Arab Spring is something that’s going to be unfolding and percolating and working its way through popular aspirations and political struggle for a long time,” Diamond says. “Obviously, we have to do business on [a] daily basis … but I think we have to have clearly declared long-term principles and really seek to advance those and be serious about it. And not just superficially or rhetorically. They should include respect for the rights of religious minorities and women; for social and political pluralism; for due process and rule of law. And other democratic principles, like freedom and fairness of elections.”

The administration may be slowly coming to recognize this. In a policy shift in mid-February, Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, gave a speech in Alexandria in which, after months of looking away, she delivered a not-so-subtle message to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood: You’re in serious trouble, and only the richer countries can help. “Egypt’s numbers paint a bleak picture: Currency reserves are at a critical level, roughly $14 billion, or three months’ worth of imports,” she said. “While this has held steady since July, that is only because of the regular injections of cash by Qatar and Turkey. These numbers do not take into account the billions that the government is in arrears to oil companies. And more importantly, they don’t highlight what Egypt is importing—basic food items and refined energy products, key determinants of social stability. If Egypt cannot pay its import bill, her people will not be missing out on television sets and cars, but on electricity, gasoline, and food.”

Obama administration officials argue that such pressure tactics—using U.S. aid and promises of debt relief to extract political reform—are already working to moderate Morsi’s actions by preventing a broader move toward martial law. At a time when the region remains in such a state of ongoing crisis, they claim, developing a strategy would be merely a game of political whack-a-mole. New parties and players are still springing to life everywhere. In Egypt, extreme Salafist (radical Islamist) parties have even begun to ally with secularists against the Morsi government—further evidence that what is emerging there may be nothing like a monolithic Islamist state.

These ideological conflicts are now playing out within the Muslim Brotherhood itself, and Houdaiby is one of those pushing for a new way to wed Islamism to a modern democratic republic. In this, he may well represent the majority of Islamists, including Morsi. “I totally believe in the rule of sharia, but I reject any argument for its imposition by an authoritarian regime against the will of the people,” Houdaiby said in recent interview with an Arabic magazine. “A predefined political space on the basis of scriptural or even popular legitimacy ends—as in the Iranian case—with excessive repression.”

Obama administration officials say these internal debates around the Arab world are why the United States has to be wary of imposing its own vision. "Traditional ideas about grand strategy don’t really capture the challenge of dealing with broad popular movements," says former Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg. "It’s less about a strategy and more about how do you position the U.S. to positively take advantage of it."

Or as a senior State Department official with long experience in the region puts it, "You’ve got to let the democratic process take its course. And you’ve got to pick your battles carefully. There is a messiness we can’t control, and so there is a lot of tolerance for that. But the red lines for us are pretty clear: If you espouse intolerance and hatred, if you practice violence, we’re going to oppose you," said the official, who would discuss the U.S. response to the region’s internal politics only anonymously. “Egypt is going to bubble along fine. They’re not going to renege on the peace treaty or attack Israel. The problem now is Syria, Yemen—it could all go south. So a lot of what we’re still doing is crisis contingency planning.”

But that’s not nearly enough, critics say. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the dean of foreign policy in the Democratic Party, says there is a “belated need” for more strategic thinking that dates at least as far back as 9/11. “We really missed the boat a great deal already immediately after 9/11, when we categorized demagogically the challenge as being the war on jihadist terror.… We didn’t differentiate.” Brzezinski says that Bush was too eager to expand the idea of radical Islamism to gin up the war against Iraq—although it was unrelated to al-Qaida—and to connect the “war on terror” to all extremist groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah. Using that simplistic template, U.S. strategists failed to explore the complex dimensions within Islam.

Yet Obama, too, has avoided grappling with these issues. Overcompensating for Bush’s excessive imposition of Western democratic ideals, he has sought to avoid meddling altogether. After a memorable speech in Cairo in 2009 in which he promised “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” the president stayed away from the Mideast, remaining largely preoccupied with domestic issues such as health care and the worsening economic crisis. In its initial national security strategy in 2009, the administration sought to gloss over the conflicts within Islam altogether, referring to the enemy as “violent extremism.” The strategy included no reference to Islamism, whether moderate or extreme, and that approach has continued.

All evidence suggests the president has been actively avoiding a coherent strategy in the Mideast, rather than seeking one. Obama has dealt with Morsi and Turkey’s Erdogan, both elected, much as previous presidents once dealt with Mubarak and other friendly dictators.


The United States needs an official study of the role of Islam in post-Arab Spring politics. But, like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration has routinely ignored or played down warnings from experts about the Islamization of Arab democracy, even in Iraq. During the early occupation of Iraq in 2003-04, American officials consistently marginalized the Islamic community, viewing Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most prestigious figure in the country, as a clueless medieval relic. Even though military intelligence officers were acutely aware of Sistani’s importance—having gathered information on him for more than a year before the invasion—Paul Bremer, the occupation administrator, and his Pentagon overseers initially sidelined the cleric, defying his calls for early elections.

And in 2006, when Hamas won election in Palestine, the Islamists’ political triumph sent U.S. policymakers into hysteria. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanded that her staff explain “why nobody saw it coming.” She admitted to reporters, “It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse on the Palestinian population.”

Why didn’t we see it coming? Many Mideast scholars had known for years that, after the toppling of dictators, whether Saddam Hussein or Hosni Mubarak, the Arab people would inevitably turn back to their traditional haven of social stability, Islam. Political progress, Bulliet says, was never going to come from secularizing Arab society but from rediscovering a more tolerant Islam, which in fact had prevailed for hundreds of years before the 20th century. Osama bin Laden transmogrified the old idea of a “caliphate”—an Islamic empire—into a monstrosity of super-strict religious law and anti-Western enmity. But during Ottoman times, Bulliet says, the caliphate meant something very different: a source of stability. “The collectivity of religious scholars acted, at least theoretically, as a countervailing force against tyranny. You had the implicit notion that if Islam is pushed out of the public sphere, tyranny will increase, and if that happens, people will look to Islam to redress the tyranny.”

In the 20th century, when ostensibly "modernizing" dictators such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad began to take over, along with others like Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk, they removed Islam from public life. That left a kind of vacuum; no longer was there any legitimate countervailing force to the autocrats. That vacuum was filled not by the traditional Islam of the mosque but by a fundamentalist Islamist reaction, a pathological skewing of Islam.

The reaction was led by brilliant but aberrant amateurs such as Egypt's Sayyid Qutb, the philosopher whose brand of Islamic radicalism shaped al-Qaida and who was hanged by Nasser. Bin Laden, who grew up infected by the Saudis' extreme version of Wahhabism, picked up where Qutb left off. This latter form of Islamism is a modern phenomenon; its fast growth in the late 20th century was largely a function of Saudi petrodollars underwriting Wahhabist mosques and clerics throughout the Arab world (and elsewhere, including America).

But this violent brand of Islamism, in the eyes of some scholars, was always an aberration—a radical, modern offshoot of the historical Islamic tradition. The mistake U.S. policymakers made after 9/11 was to see the extremism as mainstream. Now Washington’s task is to try to find common cause with more moderate, traditional Islam, and to marry it to democratic structures. There is hope for winning this fight in the long run; attitudes are already moderating over how large a role Islam should play in politics.

According to recent surveys of 1,201 Tunisians and 4,080 Egyptians conducted in October-November 2012, many Arabs said they value the building of democratic institutions even more than they do the role of Islam. "Instead of fretting over Islamists, the international community needs to have a more nuanced conception of political transition in the Arab world and should strive to bolster institutions and economic reforms in post-Arab Spring countries," the surveys’ authors write.

Marc Lynch, a scholar at George Washington University, says the Obama administration should get a lot of credit for adapting quickly, at least. "They didn’t run screaming for the hills as soon as the Islamists won," he says. "Every single administration before had withdrawn support when that happened." That’s promising, perhaps, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Washington has to train itself to speak to the Ibrahim el-Houdaibys of the Arab world, and better sooner than later.

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