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Hussein Ibish

Jumping to conclusions on the Arab Spring

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.

Thus far, 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 the Egyptian elections, and their clear influence in the new Libyan leadership does not mean the Arab world is entering a phase of Islamist rule.

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 their agenda.

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.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.

  • observer

    I know it wasn't the major focus of this piece, but it's so true what Mr. Ibish writes here, that problems cannot always be blamed on the U.S. I would extend that to Israel as well. In order for the Arab world to move forward and tap that resource which is more abundant there than any other place on the planet - the youth - they will have to move away from the blame game and work on solutions. Every country has done wrong, and been wronged. Now what? Put down the swords, pick up some pens and start a deperately needed intellectual renaissance.

    November 1, 2011