All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest
Darkness descends upon the Arab world. Waste, death, and destruction attend a fight for a better life. Outsiders compete for influence and settle accounts. The peaceful demonstrations with which this began, the lofty values that inspired them, become distant memories. Elections are festive occasions where political visions are an afterthought. The only consistent program is religious and is stirred by the past. A scramble for power is unleashed, without clear rules, values, or endpoint. It will not stop with regime change or survival. History does not move forward. It slips sideways.
Games occur within games: battles against autocratic regimes, a Sunni–Shiite confessional clash, a regional power struggle, a newly minted cold war. Nations divide, minorities awaken, sensing a chance to step out of the state’s confining restrictions. The picture is blurred. These are but fleeting fragments of a landscape still coming into its own, with only scrappy hints of an ultimate destination. The changes that are now believed to be essential are liable to be disregarded as mere anecdotes on an extended journey.
New or newly invigorated actors rush to the fore: the ill-defined “street,” prompt to mobilize, just as quick to disband; young protesters, central activists during the uprising, roadkill in its wake. The Muslim Brothers yesterday dismissed by the West as dangerous extremists are now embraced and feted as sensible, businesslike pragmatists. The more traditionalist Salafis, once allergic to all forms of politics, are now eager to compete in elections. There are shadowy armed groups and militias of dubious allegiance and unknown benefactors as well as gangs, criminals, highwaymen, and kidnappers.
Alliances are topsy-turvy, defy logic, are unfamiliar and shifting. Theocratic regimes back secularists; tyrannies promote democracy; the US forms partnerships with Islamists; Islamists support Western military intervention. Arab nationalists side with regimes they have long combated; liberals side with Islamists with whom they then come to blows. Saudi Arabia backs secularists against the Muslim Brothers and Salafis against secularists. The US is allied with Iraq, which is allied with Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, which the US hopes to help topple. The US is also allied with Qatar, which subsidizes Hamas, and with Saudi Arabia, which funds the Salafis who inspire jihadists who kill Americans wherever they can.
In record time, Turkey evolved from having zero problems with its neighbors to nothing but problems with them. It has alienated Iran, angered Iraq, and had a row with Israel. It virtually is at war with Syria. Iraqi Kurds are now Ankara’s allies, even as it wages war against its own Kurds and even as its policies in Iraq and Syria embolden secessionist tendencies in Turkey itself.
For years, Iran opposed Arab regimes, cultivating ties with Islamists with whose religious outlook it felt it could make common cause. As soon as they take power, the Islamists seek to reassure their former Saudi and Western foes and distance themselves from Tehran despite Iran’s courting. The Iranian regime will feel obliged to diversify its alliances, reach out to non-Islamists who feel abandoned by the nascent order and appalled by the budding partnership between Islamists and the US. Iran has experience in such matters: for the past three decades, it has allied itself with secular Syria even as Damascus suppressed its Islamists.
When goals converge, motivations differ. The US cooperated with Gulf Arab monarchies and sheikhdoms in deposing Qaddafi yesterday and in opposing Assad today. It says it must be on the right side of history. Yet those regimes do not respect at home the rights they piously pursue abroad. Their purpose is neither democracy nor open societies. They are engaged in a struggle for regional domination. What, other than treasure, can proponents of a self-styled democratic uprising find in countries whose own system of governance is anathema to the democratic project they allegedly promote?
The new system of alliances hinges on too many false assumptions and masks too many deep incongruities. It is not healthy because it cannot be real. Something is wrong. Something is unnatural. It cannot end well.
A media war that started in Egypt reaches its zenith in Syria. Each side shows only its own, amplifies the numbers, disregards the rest. In Bahrain, the opposite is true. No matter how many opponents of the regime turn up, few take notice. It does not register on the attention scale. Not long ago, footage from Libya glorified motley fighters with colorful bandanas and triumphant spiel. The real battles, bloody and often from the skies, raged elsewhere. Casualties were invisible.
Throngs gather in Tahrir Square. The camera zooms in on protesters. What about the unseen millions who stayed at home? Did they rejoice at Mubarak’s overthrow or quietly lament his departure? How do Egyptians feel about the current disorder, unrest, economic collapse, and political uncertainty? In the elections that ensued, 50 percent did not vote. Of those who did, half voted for the representative of the old order. Who will look after those who lie on the other side of the right side of history?
Most Syrians fight neither to defend the regime nor to support the opposition. They are at the receiving end of this vicious confrontation, their wishes unnoticed, their voices unheard, their fates forgotten. The camera becomes an integral part of the unrest, a tool of mobilization, propaganda, and incitement. The military imbalance favors the old regimes but is often more than compensated for by the media imbalance that favors the new forces. The former Libyan regime had Qaddafi’s bizarre rhetoric; Assad’s Syria relies on its discredited state-run media. It’s hardly a contest. In the battle for public sympathy, in the age of news-laundering, the old orders never stood a chance.
In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain, no unifying figure of stature has emerged with the capacity to shape a new path. There is scant leadership. Where there is leadership, it tends to be by committee. Where there are committees, they emerge mysteriously to assume authority no one has granted them. More often than not, legitimacy is bestowed from abroad: the West provides respectability and exposure; Gulf Arab states supply resources and support; international organizations offer validity and succor.
Those in charge often lack the strength that comes from a clear and loyal domestic constituency; they need foreign approval and so they must be cautious, adjust their positions to what outsiders accept. Past revolutionary leaders were not driven by such considerations. For better or for worse, they were stubbornly independent and took pride in rebuffing foreign interference.
Not unlike the rulers they helped depose, Islamists placate the West. Not unlike those they replaced, who used the Islamists as scarecrows to keep the West by their side, the Muslim Brotherhood waves the specter of what might come next should it fail now: the Salafis who, for their part and not unlike the Brothers of yore, are torn between fealty to their traditions and the taste of power.
It’s a game of musical chairs. In Egypt, Salafis play the part once played by the Muslim Brotherhood; the Brotherhood plays the part once played by the Mubarak regime. In Palestine, Islamic Jihad is the new Hamas, firing rockets to embarrass Gaza’s rulers; Hamas, the new Fatah, claiming to be a resistance movement while clamping down on those who dare resist; Fatah, a version of the old Arab autocracies it once lambasted. How far off is the day when Salafis present themselves to the world as the preferable alternative to jihadists?
Egyptian politics are wedged between the triumphant mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, more hard-line Salafis, anxious non-Islamists, and remnants of the old order. As the victorious Brotherhood tries to reach an arrangement with the rest, the political future is a blur. The speed and elegance with which the new president, Mohamed Morsi, retired or sidelined the old military leaders and the quiet with which this daring move was greeted suggest that the Islamists’ confidence has grown, that they are willing to move at a faster pace.
Tunisia is a mixed tale. The transition has been largely peaceful; the an-Nahda party, which won the elections last October, offers a pragmatic, moderate face of Islamism. But its efforts to consolidate power are a source of nervousness. Mistrust between secularists and Islamists is growing; socioeconomic protests at times become violent. Salafis lurk in the wings, assailing symbols of modern society, free speech, and gender equality.
In Yemen, former president Saleh is out of power but not offstage. One war brews in the north, another in the south. Jihadists flex their muscles. The young revolutionaries who dreamed of a complete change can only watch as different factions of the same old elite rearrange the deck. Saudis, Iranians, and Qataris sponsor their own factions. Minor clashes could escalate into major confrontations. Meanwhile, US drones eliminate al-Qaeda operatives and whoever happens to be in their vicinity.
Day by day, the civil war in Syria takes on an uglier, more sectarian hue. The country has become an arena for a regional proxy war. The opposition is an eclectic assortment of Muslim Brothers, Salafis, peaceful protesters, armed militants, Kurds, soldiers who have defected, tribal elements, and foreign fighters. There is little that either the regime or the opposition won’t contemplate in their desperation to triumph. The state, society, and an ancient culture collapse. The conflict engulfs the region.
The battle in Syria also is a battle for Iraq. Sunni Arab states have not accepted the loss of Baghdad to Shiites and, in their eyes, to Safavid Iranians. A Sunni takeover in Syria will revive their colleagues’ fortunes in Iraq. Militant Iraqi Sunnis are emboldened and al-Qaeda is revitalized. A war for Iraq’s reconquest will be joined by its neighbors. The region cares about Syria. It obsesses about Iraq.
Islamists in the region await the outcome in Syria. They do not wish to bite off more than they can chew. If patience is the Islamist first principle, consolidation of gains is the second. Should Syria fall, Jordan could be next. Its peculiar demography—a Palestinian majority ruled over by a trans-Jordanian minority—has been a boon to the regime: the two communities bear deep grievances against the Hashemite rulers yet distrust each other more. That could change in the face of the unifying power of Islam for which ethnicity, in theory at least, is of little consequence.
Weaker entities may follow. In northern Lebanon, Islamist and Salafi groups actively support the Syrian opposition, with whom they may have more in common than with Lebanese Shiites and Christians. From the outset a fragile contraption, Lebanon is pulled in competing directions: some would look to a new Sunni-dominated Syria with envy, perhaps a yearning to join. Others would look to it with fright and despair.
In Bahrain, a Sunni monarchy intent on retaining power and privilege violently suppresses the majority Shiites. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states come to their ally’s rescue. The West, so loud elsewhere, is mute. When Libya holds elections, Islamists do not fare well; their opponents believe they finally achieved their one victory in a country that has no tradition of political openness, lacks a state, and is sated with armed militias that regularly engage in deadly clashes. An octogenarian leadership in Saudi Arabia struggles with a looming transition, lives in fear of Iran and its own population, doles out cash to fend off dissatisfaction. How long can all this last?
Mohamed Morsi; drawing by John Springs
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 thePLO 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?