By Nicole Dow, CNN
Editor’s note: CNN’s Nicole Dow speaks with Marc Lynch, author of "The Arab Uprising," about the myths surrounding Islamist parties in the Arab world, democracy in the Middle East and whether Syria is cooperating with al Qaeda. The views expressed are his own.
There’s often a belief that the removal of dictatorships in the Arab world will pave the way for Islamists to rise to power. Based on what we’ve seen in Egypt recently with the outcome of its presidential election, is this view becoming more prevalent?
Yes, people certainly say this more often, but it's a bit more complicated than that. Nobody should have been surprised that Islamists did well in many transitional elections in the region. After all, they are in most cases the best organized and largest political movement in the country, and aren't tainted by association with the former regime. Public culture across the region has been moving in an Islamic direction for decades. The activists who drove the revolutions in places like Egypt and Tunisia just didn’t have the numbers, the organization, or in many cases the interest in seriously contesting elections. Once politics shifted from the street to the ballot box, Islamists were going to have a leading place.
But those early advantages won’t necessarily last. Non-Islamist forces will likely get their act together, and be more competitive in future elections. Islamists in power face all kinds of challenges, from translating their vague promises into real change to dealing with skeptics at home and abroad. There’s real support for Islamists, but also real opposition – and not just from “liberals.” And the Islamists themselves are seriously divided, competing with each other over both politics and ideology. I think it’s far too soon to simply assume that Islamists have won the Arab spring.
There’s a concern from secularists as well as religious and ethnic minority groups that the influence of Islamists will steer the path to reform in a different direction. Is this likely?
The truth is that nobody knows, including most likely the Islamists themselves. There’s no doubt that religious minorities, some women, and Westernized elites in some of these countries are deeply frightened about their future. But these are going to be contentious political issues for a long time, and it will likely develop differently in each country according to local conditions.
The leaders of Islamist movements are often pragmatists, who would prefer to avoid contentious social and religious issues in order to focus on things like the economy. But their members may be more impatient to get to the religious issues which define their identity – and if their leaders fail to deliver on economic or political reforms (as seems likely) they may well find themselves falling back on cultural issues. It doesn't help that the hyper-speed new media, from Facebook to new newspapers, tend to sensationalize these issues and stoke fears. And it won’t help that disgruntled Islamist rivals, especially the salafis, will be savaging them from the right for being insufficiently Islamic.
What should be noted about the rise of Islamist movements, particularly at this period in time, when most of the region is still in a state of flux?
The state of flux is exactly the right thing to focus upon. The defining feature of these transitional environments is the absence of clear, agreed upon rules. Constitutions are unwritten, judiciaries are politicized, and nobody really knows what the future holds on the most basic issues of personal rights, the role of religion, or political order. That uncertainty creates a lot of understandable anxiety.
It's important to recognize that the Islamist movements themselves are struggling with this uncertainty, too. Their entire organization and identity had been built upon being in opposition. They never had to really worry about what they would do with power, because power seemed hopelessly out of reach. That allowed them to posture, in both moderate and radical directions, without ever really having to deliver. Now they’ve lost that safety net, and there’s some sense that they are floundering – alienating moderates with their seeming overreach, alienating their base with their compromises, and behaving erratically. And then, don’t forget, the military leadership remains in a strong position in Egypt, the parliament remains dissolved, and it’s going to be very difficult for them to actually get anything done…at a time when expectations are very high.
That’s going to force some really tough choices. How does an Egypt with a Muslim Brotherhood president manage its relationship with Israel, or with interest-bearing IMF loans? How will the Brothers respond when salafis attack them from the right and denounce them as insufficiently Islamic? Is it possible for them to overcome the polarization between them and the rest of the political class that has emerged over the last year?
What are some of the common myths associated with Islamist movements? And what risks do these groups pose?
People tend to assume a uniformity in belief and behavior among Islamists which just doesn’t exist. It’s true that these movements are defined by a shared belief that Islam should be at the center of politics, law, and life. But they radically disagree about what that means – how to define sharia (Islamic law), whether to participate in elections, how to deal with minorities, and so forth. And over the years they have competed with each other bitterly, and have often criticized one another publicly and privately. There’s no love between the Muslim Brothers and the salafis in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood and al Qaeda generally have been fierce rivals and are constantly criticizing each other. And even the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood around the region often disagree with each other and make different choices.
People also tend to overlook the extent to which groups like the Muslim Brothers are political actors. They often assume that Islamists will be uniquely driven by ideology, but in fact they’ve often proven themselves to be supremely calculating and pragmatic.
But on the other side, people should have no illusions that the Islamists are suddenly going to become liberals. These are profoundly conservative, religious movements that are pursuing a consistent, clear strategy of Islamizing politics and society. They may be good democrats, willing and able to play the electoral game, but they aren’t liberals. Many of us used to argue that their right to participate in democratic politics and to not be arrested and tortured must be defended, and that was right. But now that they are in positions of greater influence, we have to hold them to the same standards and demand that they respect human rights, demonstrate tolerance and pluralism, and so forth.
Your book, The Arab Uprisings, examines the revolutions in the Arab world and their impact. In a region divided along sectarian, tribal, and cultural lines, how do Arabs define democracy? Can the Western notion of democracy exist in the Arab world?
The current Islamist wave is only one phase in a long-term structural change in the region. The Arab Uprising sought to put the events of the last two years into a broader context, to show the history of rising social and political protest which suddenly broke through in 2011. What made the first months of 2011 unique were the seemingly irresistible surge of protest, the unification of Arab politics across the entire region, and the sense that change could not be stopped.
Those have faded, as politics in most Arab countries have ground into murky stalemates and some – especially Syria – have turned bloody, divisive and grim. But the underlying forces such as the generational change, the new media environment, and the exhaustion of Arab autocracy will continue to push for change. It’s going to be quite a while before we know how these political institutions shake out. Islamists may take a turn on the throne in some Arab countries, but they will face the same challenges as did the secular dictators if they attempt to impose their narrow vision. There’s just no going back to the old ways, where regimes could control information and prevent any form of political expression.
How is the U.S. handling it?
I think the Obama administration has handled this about as well as it could. It understood that the Arab uprisings weren’t about the United States, at least not directly, and that these activists weren’t calling out for American leadership. Obama has been willing to accept the reality that Arab democracy is going to mean a place for Islamist movements, and has made clear that it can deal with that – but without offering them a blank check. It’s obviously not easy for any American politician to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood winning Egypt’s presidency, but Obama’s response thus far has been remarkably mature and realistic. Let’s hope that can last.
Nawaf Al-Fares, the highest-ranking Syrian diplomat defector and former ambassador to Iraq, accuses the Assad regime of collaborating with al Qaeda. Do you think there is any truth to this claim, especially since there’s a prior belief that Al Qaeda and possibly other Islamists have infiltrated certain groups within the opposition?
There’s been a tremendous amount of conflicting information coming out of Syria, making it extremely hard to parse the truth about any of these claims. It certainly would not be a surprise if there were some connections between the jihadist groups and the Syrian regimes, given the past history of collaboration in Iraq. But at the same time, many of those groups have reasons of their own for entering the Syrian arena. In some ways, the Syrian conflict may look like a life raft for al Qaeda and like-minded movements, which have badly lost momentum over the last few years. They’ve been ideologically irrelevant to the Arab spring, bin Laden’s death was symbolically devastating, and Iraq has faded as a galvanizing issue. The prospect of a new jihad in Syria could become a new Iraq for these groups, reigniting jihadist fervor and building a new generation of fighters. That they would in this case be fighting on the same side as the U.S. and the Gulf states would be ironic indeed, the precedent from 1980s Afghanistan notwithstanding.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and the Project on Middle East Political Science. He edits the Middle East Channel for ForeignPolicy.com and is also the author of “The Arab Uprising” (Public Affairs March 2012). Most recently, Lynch served as editor for the new ebook "Islamists in a Changing Middle East.”