Across the Middle East, Islamists are playing key roles in uprisings that are toppling regimes and reshaping the region. They seem certain to emerge as leading, perhaps ruling, parties in the fledgling Arab democracies.
For decades, American presidents dealing with Arab regimes have known a comforting predictability. All of them were authoritarian; despots, dictators and a few kings. There were enemies and friends. Democracy was a sham. And Islamists were to be feared, repudiated and ignored, by both Arab rulers and their American backers.
Now, U.S. friends such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and bizarre despots such as Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi are toppled alike, and the emerging reality is that Islamist parties will become powerful, perhaps ruling, forces in a vital, oil-rich, region.
Vilifying Islamists as terrorists and refusing to deal even with popularly elected ones, such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, won’t work. Instead, a whole new era of American foreign policy is dawning in the Middle East. For the Obama administration, there’s a pressing need to get on the right side of history.
“The suggestion that faithful Muslims cannot thrive in a democracy is insulting, dangerous, and wrong,” U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton said in promising to work with Islamists whose Ennahda party won 40 per cent of the vote in Tunisia, the first of the Arab Spring states to hold free elections after ousting a dictator. That success is expected to be followed in Egypt, Libya and beyond.
The relatively moderate Tunisian Islamists may be just a taste of things to come. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence but wants a “rethink” of the peace with Israel. Elsewhere, much harder-line Islamists may emerge in Yemen.
Across the region, Islamist parties are coming to grips not only with their own transition from (often-suppressed) voices of opposition to the prospect of being held accountable by populations long denied freedoms and prosperity. They are also dealing with the twin, seemingly intractable issues of Israel and an independent democratic Palestine living alongside.
In Libya, no sooner had the Western warplanes stopped bombing that the interim leader pronounced: “We, as an Islamic state, determined that [ sharia]law is a major source for legislation, and on this basis any law which contradicts the principles of Islam and Islamic law will be considered null and void.” At a stroke, he had legalized polygamy, apparently without even a hint of democratic consultation.
“Not all Islamists are alike,” Ms. Clinton admits of the Muslims who see a role for Islam in government and politics.
A Middle East churning in disequilibrium perhaps for many years may be the inevitable outcome of the wave of uprisings.
“No question, Islamist parties are more assertive and ambitious than ever,” writes Robin Wright, a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center. She foresees turmoil. “The next decade will be far more traumatic for both insiders and outsiders than the last one, though often due more to economic challenges than Islamist politics. Pity the inheritors of the Arab world’s broken political and economic systems, whoever they are.”
Other observers detect ambivalence as America comes to grips with the uncertainties of a freer Arab world. “Americans also seem hesitant to fully and enthusiastically support the Arab citizen revolts because these target Arab regimes that have been long and close allies of the United States,” says Rami Khouri, the widely respected columnist at Beirut’s The Daily Star.
For the Obama administration, safeguarding seemingly competing and contradictory American interests may become even more difficult if more Islamist parties are elected. For instance, will secure Saudi oil supplies from a friendly, albeit absolute, monarchy trump American instincts to promote democracy and individual liberty?
“The No. 1 thing is that universal human rights, rights for women, rights for minorities, right to due process, right to transparency be fully respected,” was the policy line promoted by State’s spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. She was referring to the next Libyan government.
Just as Islamist parties will vary from one Arab nation to another, America’s priorities may reflect varying interests in the region.