The Middle East commentariat needs to check a growing pattern of
premature handwringing and jumping to conclusions about the outcome of
the ongoing Arab uprisings. Here are a few, I hope, sobering
reflections about what has and has not happened thus far.
First, the broader regional order is being reshaped along troublingly
sectarian lines, but this is by no means clear-cut or irreversible.
For now the biggest winner regionally is Turkey and the biggest loser
is Iran, in part because Turkey has been able to play its Sunni and
“moderate Islamist” card against Iran’s Shia and “radical Islamist”
identity. But these gains and losses are highly contingent and
vulnerable, and everything is in play both regionally and within those
Arab states undergoing transformation.
Second, Islamists are not “taking over” anywhere yet. Far too many
observers are leaping to this conclusion because inevitably Islamist
parties, which in most Arab states have been the only well-organized
opposition groups during dictatorships, were poised to take early
advantage of newly-opened political space.
In states that have seen revolution, most notably Libya, and those
undergoing managed transitions, such as Tunisia and Egypt, it’s no
surprise that the biggest single challenge is negotiating the
relationship of Islamist groups with the emerging new systems and
other forces in those societies.
The strong performance of Islamists in the preliminary Tunisian
elections, the advantageous position they seemingly hold in the run-up
to Egyptian elections, and their clear influence in the new Libyan
leadership does not mean the Arab world is entering a phase of
It does, however, reflect the fact that at the moment Islamists have
significant constituencies that will be reflected in more pluralistic
systems, and that they are well-organized, while secularists are not.
But nowhere has there been an Islamist “takeover,” and there are other
powerful forces at play.
Theoretically one would’ve expected Islamist influence to be at its
apex in the earliest stages of transition toward more democratic
systems in post-dictatorship Arab societies, and that’s exactly what
we’re seeing. There is also every reason to both hope and expect that
this influence will be held in check by other social forces and
quickly either plateau or decline.
Third, there is an intellectually and politically indefensible rush to
recast the leading Arab Islamist parties as more moderate or
pluralistic than they actually are. Almost all of them remain Muslim
Brotherhood or Salafist groupings, not Arab equivalents of European
Christian Democratic parties or even the Turkish AKP. If
constitutional restraints on government powers are strong, as they
must be in any democracy, eventually some Arab Islamist groups will
probably move in that direction, but they have not yet.
While there’s no reason to think Islamists are in the process of
consolidating absolute power anywhere, it’s simply foolish not to
recognize that they remain in every meaningful sense radical and
retain their totalitarian impulses. That they would like to broadly
and severely restrict the rights of individuals, women and minorities
in the name of religion is obvious. It’s hard to see them developing
such unrestrained power, but there is also no use in kidding oneself
about their evident intentions.
Fourth, some Arab secularists, whose orientation and values I share
and whom I usually agree with, are indulging in a widespread
conspiracy theory that the United States is deliberately promoting
Arab Islamists. There is no basis for such an assertion, unless
accepting that pluralism means these parties will be able to vie for
the limited powers of a constitutional government equals support for
Actual material and financial support for Sunni Islamists in the Arab
world in fact comes mainly from the Gulf, particularly Qatar, but also
other governments and wealthy individuals.
Blaming the United States for the predictable facts that Islamists are
among early beneficiaries of newly-opened Arab political spaces and
that Arab secularists are struggling to organize themselves and
articulate their vision seems utterly groundless.
This conspiracy theory indulges in one of the most powerful forms of
Arab political mythology: the omnipotent United States, which is often
held to be deliberately engineering whatever is transpiring in the
Middle East. This was never true, and the limitations of American
influence are more obvious now than ever.
From the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” the tendency to rush to
judgment has been almost overwhelming. Yet in every Arab society under
transformation—or those like Syria and Yemen that are facing ongoing
uprisings—and also in terms of the emerging new regional order, the
outcomes remain profoundly uncertain.
What’s clear is that Arab democracy will require pluralistic systems
open to peaceful Islamist parties while protective of individual,
minority and women’s rights. What’s not clear is how, or even if, Arab
societies are going to get there.
Snap judgments don’t explicate much about where we are, and illuminate
even less about where we’re going.