As extremists surge, future of political Islam tenuous?

The Islamist politicians who swept elections in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, undermining the militant thesis that violence offered the only hope for change, are now in frantic retreat, David D. Kirkpatrick reports for The New York Times:

Instead, it is the jihadists who are on the march, roving unchecked across broad sections of North Africa and the Middle East. Now they have seized control of territory straddling the borders of Iraq and Syria where they hope to establish an Islamic caliphate.

And they are reveling in their vindication.

“Rights cannot be restored except by force,” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the surging Qaeda breakaway group, declared last year after the Egyptian military removed President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood from office. Islamists must choose “the ammunition boxes over the ballot boxes” and negotiate “in the trenches rather than in hotels,” the group proclaimed, calling the more election-minded Muslim Brotherhood “a secular party in Islamic clothes” and “more evil and cunning than the secularists.”



“But others, led by the moderate Islamists here in Tunisia, argue that …if moderates hope to counter the jihadists and build democracies, their parties must be much more inclusive and conciliatory toward non-Islamist rivals and even those who participated in the old authoritarian governments,” Kirkpatrick continues:

The extremists always warned the moderates not to trust the military, said Rachid al-Ghannouchi, founder and chairman of Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “their predictions were true.” But Mr. Ghannouchi said the solution for the Islamist movement was not to fight back with weapons, but to further embrace pluralism, tolerance and compromise. “The cure for a failed democracy is more democracy,” he said, because “dictatorship disguised in religion is the worst kind of dictatorship.”….

Mohammed Sawan, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, echoed the Tunisians, arguing that his faction needed to do a better job cooperating with liberals. “The battle in the Arab region isn’t about Islam or identity at all,” he said. “It’s about the fundamental values of democracy, freedom and rights. It has nothing to do with Islamists versus non-Islamists.”

With the downfall of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the militant approach of Islamists in Iraq, Syria, Libya, analysts say the future of political Islam in the Arab world is tenuous, VOA’s Mohamed Elshinnawi reports:

Tarek Abdel Hamid, a former member of a militant Islamist group in Egypt, now a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy, said Islamists need to moderate their ideology and define a political model.

“In the past the military regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq used security measures to repress Islamists, but now because of their ideological defeat, the population turned against them, so they will have a very negative future.” he said.

“They are not fit to rule because they are still motivated by ideology not focusing on pragmatic solutions for citizens’ demands whether the economy, social justice, gender equality or freedom of religion,” he said.

But Shadi Hamid (above), an analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said while the Muslim Brotherhood failed to govern in Egypt, he is convinced that political Islam will have a future.

“There is a widespread support in the deeply conservative societies in the region for Islamists’ objective of more mix of religion and politics, so if there is a popular demand for this, someone has to supply it,” he said.

When Islamists from around the region gathered last fall at the Middle East Studies Center in Amman, Jordan, to assess lessons learned, the NYT’s Kirkpatrick reports, the main conclusion was that “Islamists must now develop an idea of national partnership with the other forces,” Jawad el-Hamad, the center’s director, said in an interview.

But while what has happened in Egypt will not easily replicate itself in the region, Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University, said that it has already affected thinking throughout Islamist circles everywhere.

“It has inspired some governments to move against Islamists and has made some Islamists reevaluate their surroundings,” he said. “Political Islam is hardly dead, but the movements that lead Islamism into the formal political process are likely to be just a little bit more leery of that path almost everywhere—and perhaps totally shut out of it in Egypt.”

Hamid said obituaries of political Islam are premature. 

“You can kill an organization but killing an idea is much more difficult. Even if we saw Islamists at an existential threat, their vision for the society is deeply entrenched in the region,” he said. “In spite of repression of Nasser in Egypt, Hafez Al Assad in Syria and Ben Ali in Tunisia we saw the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and Syria, and [the] Ennahda movement in Tunisia recovered and reemerged once there was a political opening.” he said. 

“The struggle for and within political Islam is important for what it can tell us about how beliefs and ideology are mediated and altered by the political process,” he said.


What Egypt can expect from Sisi presidency

egypt sisiEgypt‘s Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb was sworn in on Tuesday at the head of a new government that retained key economic and security ministers but created a new investment post to attract funds to an economy racked by years of political turmoil, Reuters reports (HT: FPI).

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to tackle the country’s acute problems; the highest in priority being human rights, national reconciliation, economic recovery, security and stability and foreign relations, says a prominent analyst. But despite Sisi’s media-manufactured and inflated popularity, his presidency will be a rough one and is not likely to score high on these critical issues, says Emad Shahin,Professor of Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

Human rights

Since the July coup, Egypt has witnessed unprecedented human rights violations. Over the past 10 months, more than three thousand protesters have been killed, sixteen thousand injured and forty one thousand have been detained, he writes for Middle East Eye.

National reconciliation

egyptsisidunneOver the past three years, Egyptians have been severely polarized and divided [as] top officials, pro-coup intellectuals and media propagandists insisted on projecting Egyptians as “two peoples” engaged in a deep state of “war of attrition.” This state of polarization needs to end soon and make way for much needed national reconciliation.

Obviously, the reconciliation process entails accountability for human rights violations and guarantees to prevent their recurrence. Sisi repeatedly asserted in several interviews and speeches that “there is no room for reconciliation with ‘offenders’” during his term. Stressing the same exclusionary narrative, he claimed not all Egyptians support reconciliation and that he has a mandate to speak on their behalf.  Independent polls show the opposite. The majority of Egyptians still support democracy over a strong leader and that 43 percent do not support the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi…..

Economic recovery

Sisi’s key to economic success is simple. He needs to do exactly the opposite of Mubarak: fight corruption and adopt “radical” economic structural reforms. These will enable him to face the country’s chronic economic problems, namely unemployment, low growth rates, budget deficit and low investment rates.

It is doubtful that Sisi is willing to take these measures. Sisi is the product of Mubarak’s state and does not seem to be bothered by the issue of corruption. 

He declared more than once that “we should give the corrupt another chance and try to get the best out of them.” On another occasion, he advised Egyptians to only “whisper softly in the ears of corrupt officials and not make a big deal.” In the Egyptian lexicon this is a clear signal that corruption will be tolerated under Sisi. Ironically, he forewarned poor Egyptians that they must be ready to sacrifice one or two generations for the country to move forward……

Security and stability

Restoring security and stability cannot be achieved with continued human rights abuses, political polarization, and low economic growth. The key to security and stability lies in addressing the political roots of the crisis and the “criminal” ramifications of using thugs against political opponents.  Expectedly, Sisi is striving to end the 11-month protests against him and his coup. This will not take place unless there is true inclusion and national reconciliation. He rejects both vehemently.

The phenomenon of thugs has become part of the state security operation and structure.  Reportedly, an army of 300,000 thousand has become a parallel force with illegal activities and actions. ….

Read the rest.

- Emad Shahin is Professor of Public Policy, the American University in Cairo (AUC) and Editor-in-Chief, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics. He is currently a Public Policy Scholar at Woodrow Wilson Center and a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Columbia University.

Reflections on the revolution in Egypt

egyptreflectionsThe problem is not that Egyptians are averse to liberalism, it’s that no one has offered them the option, says Hudson Institute analyst Samuel Tadros. Democracy assistance too often comprised technical training rather than genuinely political aid, he contends in this extract from his new book, Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt. 

The most important legacy of President Bush’s Freedom Agenda was not the pressure it put on regimes, for that soon subsided, but the new world that was opened to dissidents and opponents of Mubarak. Dissidents were suddenly international celebrities, and the newly acquired attention protected many of them from the worst of the regime’s practices. Egyptian activists and bloggers were showered with invitations to meetings and speeches in the US and Europe, and the regime was put more on the defensive as its practices received further scrutiny and criticism. More consequential, however, were the tools and opportunities that were suddenly put at the dissidents’ disposal.

In December 2002 Secretary of State Colin Powell had announced the creation of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). One of its aims, he indicated, was “to close the freedom gap with projects to strengthen civil society, expand political participation, and lift the voices of women.” Together with MEPI, the US Agency for International Development began to focus more on democracy funding in the region. US democracy promotion organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House received more funding to bridge that freedom gap.

The results were nothing less than spectacular.

Thousands of Egyptians traveled to the United States in a variety of programs that aimed to provide them with the necessary tools to change their societies. Thousands of training sessions were held in the US, the region, and around the world to teach activists new ways to organize and mobilize. They learned how to use new technology to their advantage. Hundreds of Egyptian civil society organizations received funding for political training and election monitoring. Experiences were being transferred as veterans from pro-democracy movements in Eastern Europe trained Egyptian activists on how to challenge the authoritarian regime. Regional ties were being created as thousands of activists from across the Arab world were being introduced to one another and sharing their experiences.

Funding illiberal anti-Americans

Nevertheless in the rush to support activists and dissidents and close the freedom gap, something was largely missing: the content that would fill the gap. Action, not theory, was what was sought. Activists were being provided tools but no substance to use them for. Human rights activists were being trained on how to document abuses, but no one paid attention to explaining the intellectual foundation of why these were considered abuses in the first place. Newer computers were being provided to Egyptian newspapers, but the same anti-American, anti-Semitic, conspiracy theory-driven articles were being written. Some of the programs, like those run by any bureaucracy, and the American one is no exception, suffered from the problem of giving people a fish per day instead of training them how to fish.

More profoundly, no one paid the slightest attention to explaining why fishing was good in the first place. In a region that had not developed a natural rights discourse, democracy assistance only exasperated its ills instead of helping cure them. Human freedom was being downgraded and replaced by a mere tool; democracy and democracy promotion became a goal in itself with no understanding of what that democracy might produce.

No war of ideas

Activists were being trained, but who were they and what did they advocate? No one seemed to care. Anyone who was neither part of the regime nor a member of a terrorist organization seemed to qualify for US benevolence. It mattered little if those activists were actively attempting to replace the oppressive regime with worse ones of the Islamist, Nasserite, or communist variant. Any regime opponent was described as a liberal and every beardless activist depicted a secular. While Western policy-makers spoke of a war of ideas being waged for the hearts and minds of the region’s citizens, they hardly provided any ideas to compete with the prevalent leftist and Islamist ideas that dominated Arab culture. Ultimately they were only providing the existing anti-American ideologists with better tools.

With abundant funding, civil society organizations were becoming more attractive to young Egyptians than political parties. Some were genuine believers, but in a political environment in which opposition parties suffered from the same diseases afflicting the ruling one, civil society organizations provided a much-needed breathing space. They also provided an opportunity for personal development, fame, and economic advancement. But it was not any associations that were being promoted, but a particular kind—human rights NGOs. Funding was available for monitoring elections, documenting abuses, even video journalism, but not much more. A new generation of activists was trained to approach Egypt’s democratic deficit from a rights perspective, not politics. People were trained how to protest and challenge autocracy; no one was trained on how to politically organize, formulate programs, and compromise. The depletion of talent from political parties would be a problem that would have a profound eff ect on the future of the Egyptian revolution.

The generation that had left politics for human rights advocacy could not be suddenly expected to make the transition back. Human rights defenders are fighting for a noble cause. They do not negotiate, they never compromise. There is no negotiation between the abused and the abuser, no compromise between the tortured and the torturer. As Burke wrote: “They have ‘the rights of men.’ Against these there can be no prescription; against these no agreement is binding: these admit no temperament, and no compromise: anything withheld from their full demand is so much of fraud and injustice.”

Contempt for politics

Pragmatism is not a virtue in the world of human rights advocacy. Asked what he had in mind for his movement’s future, April 6 founder Ahmed Maher replied: “April 6 will monitor Parliament’s performance and confront any mistakes. . . . The group will continue to mobilize in Tahrir Square when necessary.” His colleague in the movement, Mohamed Adel described their priorities: “building a new state, societal reform, and putting pressure on anyone in power.” If they clung to their previous practices, it was because they knew no other.

The contempt the revolutionaries held for politics was most apparent in their accusations against the Muslim Brotherhood. Its greatest crime, in their eyes, was having betrayed the demands of the revolution and cutting a deal with SCAF. Regardless of the truthfulness of the accusation, that it was viewed as an accusation in the first place is remarkable. Politics by its very nature is the art of negotiation, compromise, and cutting deals. No political actor is likely to achieve all his aspirations, at least not one who does not have a monopoly on the state. Given that the revolutionaries had the weakest hand among the three contending groups, they should have been the one who most sought a deal. Nothing of the sort took place. The few non-Islamists who were willing to negotiate with SCAF and guarantee a state where Islamists would not dominate the country and transform society in return for preserving the military’s interests were pronounced traitors by the revolutionaries. Negotiations were a betrayal to the blood of martyrs, they said.

In the end it was all or nothing. Naturally, they got nothing.

The revolutionaries’ worst offense, however, was their complete ignorance of the country they sought to transform. Their imaginary Egypt had no relationship to the actual Egypt. When Salafis began demanding an Islamic state, many a revolutionary expressed surprise and admitted not knowing Salafis existed in Egypt. When attacks on Christians intensified, many a revolutionary were astonished by the level of sectarianism in the country. When Egyptians elected Islamists to Parliament, the revolutionaries could not understand why they didn’t vote for the revolution’s party. When Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik received the highest number of votes in the first round of the presidential election, there was genuine shock among the revolutionaries. Burke had described their French ancestors as “men who never had seen the state so much as in a picture.” His words have never rang truer.

A liberal democracy is not born out of thin air. It requires the existence of liberal democrats. And if the term means something more than people who are simply not Islamists and not extreme leftists, then they are absent in Egyptian politics. There are very few liberals in Egypt, not because Egyptians are averse to liberalism or are different from any other people, but because there is no liberalism in Egypt. There is no liberal discourse in the public square. People cannot belong to an ideology that does not exist. With hardly any liberal books written in Arabic and no translations of the major works of Western liberalism, those liberals in Egypt are but a privileged few who are able and willing to read in a foreign language.

Today, Egypt’s former revolutionaries are split between the submissive and the delusional, between those who have become no more than cheerleaders for a military coup and those who continue to dream of an endless revolution— or, as Leszek Kolakowski once remarked, “between lovers of prostitutes and lovers of clouds: those who know only the satisfaction of the moment . . . and those who lose themselves in otiose imaginings.” It is easy to mistake them for helpless victims, men caught like Oedipus in a tragedy they cannot control. Greek tragedies, however, have little to offer in understanding the story of the Egyptian revolution and its failure, but perhaps another Greek contribution to civilization might be better suited for the task—Greek mythology. Unless they begin to learn from their mistakes, unless they embark on a journey of discovering their own country, unless they educate themselves not on the newest technology but on the oldest books, unless they start offering their countrymen something more than abstract principles, they are forever doomed, like Sisyphus, condemned eternally to repeatedly roll a heavy rock up a hill only to have it roll down again as it nears the top. An eternity of fruitless labor and endless disappointment.


Prospects for Arab democracy? What transitions elsewhere teach us

It would be premature to conclude that the Arab Spring has run its course and to declare the region’s brief experiment with democracy over, says a prominent analyst. What the recent history of democratization in other regions of the world shows is that it is almost always a lengthy process, full of unexpected advances and heartbreaking reversals, the Brookings Institution’s Stephen Grand contends.

“It is far easier to mobilize citizens to unseat a despotic regime than to construct a liberal democratic order in its place—one is an act of destruction, the other an act of construction,” he notes:

As one analyst aptly put it: “You can tweet a revolution, but you can’t tweet a transition.” Getting from that initial democratic breakthrough to consolidated liberal democracy takes time. From casting aside the old autocratic regime to creating a new one where not only are free and fair elections convened on a regularized basis, but individual citizen’s rights and freedoms are safeguarded and the rule of law is upheld, can be the work of decades, if not generations.

For the United States and other countries wishing to support democratic change in the region, the challenges are threefold:

To help tamp down the political violence and societal polarization that have roiled the region so that democratic politics has a chance to take root.

To help speed the kind of value changes that have brought into being the Tahrir generation, through creative use of social and traditional media and professional and educational exchanges.

To help democratic activists in the region better organize and expand upon their Tahrir base, so that they begin to be effective players in the region’s politics.


Stephen Grand examines the state of democratic change in the Middle East that started with the Arab Spring as the 2014 U.S.-Islamic World Forum draws to an end. Grand is the author of the new book Understanding Tahrir Square: What Transitions Elsewhere Can Teach Us About the Prospects for Arab Democracy, from which parts of this article are drawn.



U.S. ‘mixed success’ in assistance to Arab Spring transitions

POMEDREPORTThe United States “has largely failed to adapt U.S. assistance or policy toward the Middle East and North Africa in response to the dramatic political changes in the region over the past few years,” a new analysis suggests.  

“In general, it is remarkable how little the structure and objectives of U.S. assistance to the region have changed since before the 2011 uprisings,” according to The Federal Budget and Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2015: Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, a joint publication of the Project on Middle East Democracy and the Heinrich Böll Foundation of North America.

“The percentage of U.S.  assistance devoted to supporting military and security forces has actually increased since 2010 while the percentage devoted to programming dedicated to democracy and governance has decreased, despite frequent rhetoric from the administration and Congress in 2011 suggesting that the opposite would take place,’ the reports notes:  

Three years after the uprisings of 2011, the administration has had only mixed success in regularizing its assistance to countries in transition. In 2012 and into 2013, the administration mobilized large amounts of aid to respond to the democratic upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria through significant reprogramming and reallocation from multi-country accounts. Such a response was necessary at that time, when funds had not been budgeted ahead of time.  

By now, the administration should be working to move a greater percentage of assistance to those countries into bilateral accounts to establish a more permanent aid relationship. The administration has just this year made moves in that direction in both Yemen and Syria, but has failed to do so in Tunisia and especially in Libya. 

Support for democracy and governance programming in Syria in this year’s request is dramatically increased to $80 million; if granted, democracy assistance to Syria will be the highest bilateral level in the region. Democracy practitioners have complained for some time that the administration does not have a clear strategy for supporting democracy and governance activities in liberated areas of the country. The administration moved a substantial amount of Syria assistance into a bilateral account this year, including a large request for democracy assistance, which may signal a step in that direction. This new request, coupled with increasing coordination of Syria assistance by Mark Ward, could bring increased clarity to U.S. democracy programming strategy in the country.