Islamists are not taking over the Arab world

The always interesting Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic has taken issue with my last column in which I argued that it is far too early to make any sweeping conclusions about the outcome of the Arab uprisings, and points to a column he wrote a few days ago arguing that "The path the Arab people seem to want, at least for the moment, is the path of Islam." That very much remains to be seen. Goldberg's argument is based mainly on the outcome of the Egyptian elections and the alarming success of the Salafist Al Nour party, as well as that of the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Like many other observers, Goldberg is jumping to premature conclusions. Let me stipulate that the results of the Egyptian elections are very troubling, especially the strong performance of the Salafists, given their bizarre level of religious fanaticism. Furthermore, it shows what I don't think anybody doubts: a wide range of Islamist groups have large constituencies in the contemporary Arab world. And, of course, because they were in most cases the only organized opposition political groupings that operated under secular Arab dictatorships, they are best positioned to be early beneficiaries of any opening up of political or discursive space and all rivals will be playing catch-up for some time. They are organized and have their constituency, and they are not tainted by any connection with the former regimes, and have the patina of long-standing opposition to dictators. So while the performance of the Al Nour party was somewhat, although not completely, surprisingly strong, that of the Muslim Brothers was not.

But, having stipulated to all of this, I cannot share the conclusion of Goldberg and many others that these elections, and less still the overall trajectory of the Arab uprisings, suggests that the Arab people want “the path of Islam,” whatever that might be, precisely. Let's begin with Egypt. Islamist parties did exceptionally well in the elections, but benefited enormously from a number of contingent factors: the bizarre Egyptian electoral law heavily favored them in a number of complex ways; the liberal opposition was divided and disorganized and barely campaigned at all; much of the liberals' energy was devoted to protests in the week leading up to the election; both the protests and the Army's violent response to them made the Muslim Brotherhood look, to many eyes, like the most responsible people in the country because they did not participate in the protests (officially), but strongly condemned the deadly crackdown, thereby offending almost no important constituency.

But it's important to recognize that the Islamists in Egypt have won an early and resounding victory for a constituent assembly that has virtually no powers. Egypt has a presidential, not a parliamentary, system and the military is acting as a de facto presidency for all intents and purposes. Indeed, by emphasizing the importance of the elections, the legitimacy of the military as the organizers and guarantor of them, and praising the military for the way the elections were conducted, the Muslim Brotherhood has implicitly acknowledged the military's authority as the de facto presidency. Of coarse they are now involved in a long-term campaign to switch from a presidential to a parliamentary system, but so far without any real successes. The supra-constitutional principles issued by the military also highly restrict the role of the constituent assembly in drafting the constitution. The assembly will only get 20 seats out of 100 and can only choose between different candidates put forward by other institutions for the remaining 80 seats. Moreover, the military is reserving to itself enormous powers over defense matters, its budget and economic interests and other prerogatives without legislative oversight. Of course, this document is incredibly controversial and was a proximate cause for the pre-election protests. But it has not been rescinded, only slightly amended.

Obviously there are a lot of people in Egypt, especially the Islamists who won a majority for the constituent assembly, who are extremely upset about this document. And, given how controversial it is it is unlikely to be enforced as it is currently structured. But what it demonstrates is that while the Islamists in Egypt have a large constituency, a huge head start in terms of branding and organization, and thus far totally ineffective liberal opponents, it is hardly the only game in town to say the least. They have actually acquired very little practical political power through their assembly victory. Of course it could be argued that they now have enormous legitimacy based on a strong show of public support. That's fair enough, as long as one notes the caveats cited above. But the military remains firmly in control and shows little sign of ceding that control to anyone, and certainly not an Islamist-dominated parliament.

It's possible that the Islamists in Egypt might end up dominating a future government across the board. But I think, as I have been arguing since last summer, the more likely scenario in Egypt in the long run is a three-way division of power with the military retaining decisive control over defense and national security, a foreign policy-oriented presidency, and a parliament with wide latitude in domestic affairs (which is where Islamists might really be able to take their share of power in Egypt). But there is also the real possibility that the Islamists have peaked too early, and that their head start has been at least somewhat squandered on gaining a large majority in a powerless assembly. Next time around they may face tougher opposition, less preposterous electoral laws favoring them and a more realistic appraisal by the public of the limitations of their agenda. And, whatever happens, the military and remnants of the former power structure remain a formidable political force the Islamists will have to deal with even if they secure a string of electoral victories for parliament (the presidency, it would seem, is beyond their reach for now).

Goldberg is extrapolating not only about Egypt based on one election, but about the Arab world in general. A review of developments in the various countries involved in the Arab uprisings does not support the idea that the Islamists are taking over, although it does, of course, confirm that they are immediate and major beneficiaries of the opening of political space (these are decidedly not the same things). In Tunisia, the Islamist Al-Nahda party did better than any other group, but they only got about 40% of the vote. The badly divided secularists, who made a complete pig's breakfast out of the entire campaign, split the remaining 50+ percent among themselves, but this result shows that even at a moment of optimal advantage in Tunisia, Islamists do not command a majority. The result has forced Al-Nahda to enter into a coalition with two secular parties, the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol. So, the Islamists in Tunisia have a lot of influence, but not a majority and can hardly be said to be “taking over.”

The situation for Islamists in Libya is even more stark. Despite all the handwringing about “Al Qaeda” now ruling in Tripoli, when it came time for the NTC to form its new cabinet, the Libyan Islamists were left completely in the cold and got almost no important jobs whatsoever. Abdelhakim Belhaj, the Salabi brothers and the other Libyan Islamists were frozen out by a consensus in the NTC leadership against having any Islamists at all in key positions. Rather than becoming Minister of Defense, as he and his supporters wanted, Belhaj appears to have been handed something of a booby prize: the Syria file. After the new government was formed, he was dispatched by NTC leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil to go to Turkey to meet with Syrian opposition figures. But, on his way to the airport he was arrested by the rival, and much more powerful, Zintan militia on the pretext that he had a forged passport. He was released after a few hours and went on his mission. If nothing else, the Zintan forces — whose leader, Osama Al-Juwali, actually did become the defense minister — demonstrated that they could not only detain Belhaj if they so chose, but that they are in control and he's not.

Moreover, increasingly large numbers of Libyans including the general public and senior officials have become increasingly outraged by Qatar's funding of Libyan Islamists. In stark contrast to the days immediately following the overthrow of Qaddafi, Qatari flags are no longer flying in Libyan cities and reportedly are not easily available for purchase either. There have been lengthy and extremely passionate diatribes by various senior Libyan officials against Qatar on these grounds. It's clear that, for now at least, the Libyan Islamists are not only not in control, their influence is decidedly limited. The Salabis and Belhaj are going to have to work on forming a political party and try to gain votes in some future elections, but they will also have to overcome a significant stigma of being the tool of a now unwelcome foreign power.

The conflagration in Yemen has not brought Islamists to power or prominence either. It's true that armed Muslim extremists of many different varieties are taking advantage of the increasing spaces of impunity emerging in that slowly disintegrating state. But operating freely in remote areas is a far cry from taking power in the major cities, and so far the main battle in Yemen is between different elite groupings vying for control of Sana'a and Aden.

In Syria there is, of course, an Islamist presence in the street protests and in the SNC, but it does not appear to be dominant. The growing armed insurgency seems to be mainly driven by defecting soldiers outraged by the government's brutality, not armed Islamists. The SNC includes the Syrian Muslim Brothers and some other Islamists, but it is not led by them. Neither Burhan Ghalyoun nor Basma Kodmani, the two most publically prominent figures in the SNC, are Islamists in any sense whatsoever, and indeed both are staunch secularists and nationalists. There are Islamists, particularly Turkish-influenced and, it would seem, also Gulf-funded, in the SNC, but they do not dominate it by any means. So, again, nothing in Syria indicates that a post-dictatorship scenario is likely to be dominated by Islamists.

Even in Bahrain, where the uprising became increasingly sectarian as it developed, the mainstream Shiite opposition political society Al-Wefaq, while it represents a confessional identity group and is led by a Shiite cleric, does not espouse Shiite Islamism of the Khomeini variety or anything remotely like that. They are socially conservative, to be sure, and indeed reactionary, but to all appearances they do not seem to fit into any recognizable Islamist model. The Bahraini opposition also prominently includes the nonsectarian social democratic party Al-Waad, led by Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni leftist activist (who was, outrageously, sentenced to five years in prison). The Bahraini government and its GCC allies appear convinced that the uprising was and is an Iranian plot and seeks to impose Iranian style theocratic rule in the country. There isn't a shred of evidence of direct Iranian involvement and most of the prominent opposition parties appear to want nothing of the kind. But even if they did, in Bahrain, however unstable and unjust it no doubt is, the government appears firmly in control for now and even if the opposition were Islamist, they are hardly about to take over there either.

I could go on but I think I've made my point. The Egyptian election is the one strong piece of data one could cite for claiming that the "Arab Spring" has given way to an “Islamist Winter.” But even in Egypt this is not true. And, as I've demonstrated, it's not true in Tunisia, in spite of the strong performance of Al-Nahda in the elections; definitely not true in Libya; and doesn't seem to be emergent in Yemen or Syria. In fact, there is only one Arab society in which Sunni Islamists have seized power (Sudan is basically run by a military junta that sometimes poses as Islamist but is actually not): Gaza. Hamas came to power there through what amounted to a violent coup that was mainly a consequence of the lack of Palestinian statehood and certainly had nothing to do with the ongoing Arab uprisings.

As it happens, the uprisings have thrown Hamas into a most un-enviable conundrum indeed. They've lost their alliance with their two main sponsors, Syria and Iran, and are having to reposition and rebrand themselves in a Middle East that is increasingly being defined regionally in sectarian terms. As a Sunni Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood, party, they cannot be part of an Iranian-led and essentially Shiite alliance under current circumstances. The uprisings have, indeed, been largely a boon to Arab Sunni Islamists, but they have been a major blow to Iran and its Shiite and Alawite allies, as well as putting Hamas in an impossible position. Hamas is gambling, or at least hoping, that events in Egypt will put the Muslim Brotherhood firmly in control, but it's hard to imagine the military giving up final say on defense and national security issues even if they allow the development of a far more empowered parliament, that under current circumstances would surely have a very strong Islamist plurality or majority.

Overall, there is no doubt that Iranian-style Shiite and revolutionary Islamism has been badly damaged thus far by the Arab uprisings, while the Sunni and constitutionalist Islamism of the ruling Turkish AKP party has become a model Arab Islamists are increasingly drawn towards. So the restructuring of regional relations along sectarian lines and the ascendancy of Turkey and decline in influence of Iran has already had a clear impact in new strategic, if not ideological, strands of thought among Arab Sunni Islamists. In addition, in the Tunisian and Egyptian elections respectively, neither Al-Nahda nor the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood campaigned mainly on their religious or social conservative agendas. Instead, in order to reach beyond their core base, they foregrounded social justice, economic concerns and good governance. Insofar as they managed to put forward the most credible platform on these issues, it would be a mistake to see the Egyptian and Tunisian elections as simply a wholehearted endorsement of the Islamist agenda. So with all due respect to Jeffrey Goldberg and so many others, it's just plain wrong to look at the events in the Arab world in 2011 and conclude that the Islamists are taking over anywhere, let alone everywhere, and that the Arabs have demonstrated they want to take “the path of Islam” as defined by these Islamist groups.


Jeffery has responded to my response to him, saying that "Arabs are voting, with eyes wide open, for Islamist parties. When they stop voting for Islamist parties, I'll revisit my preliminary conclusion that Islamism is on the rise." 
To be clear, I don't actually take issue with the idea that "Islamism is on the rise" — clearly Islamists are immediate and primary beneficiaries of the opening of political space in Arab societies. Indeed, I've said so for months. What I disagree with is the idea that they are coming to power or "taking over." There's a large gap between these two ideas. There are a lot of other forces at work in the Arab world, as I think I outlined above. So, I'm sure they will be more powerful and influential than they were under dictatorships, but skeptical they can come to any real political dominance or uncontested power.