“The institutions of civil society were too weak; the political culture of winner-take-all too strong; sectarian differences too powerful; and a belief in pluralism too inchoate,” notes Dennis B. Ross, a counselor and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Instead, the awakening produced political vacuums and a struggle over identity.”
A new fault line has emerged in Middle Eastern politics, one that will have profound implications for America’s foreign policy in the region, he writes for the New York Times:
On one side are the Islamists — both Sunni and Shiite. the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the Muslim Brotherhood represent the Sunni end of the spectrum, while the Islamic Republic of Iran and its militias, including Hezbollah (in Lebanon and Syria) and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (in Iraq), constitute the other. Many of these Islamists are at war with one other, but they are also engaged in a bitter struggle with non-Islamists to define the fundamental identity of the region and its states. What the Islamists all have in common is that they subordinate national identities to an Islamic identity.
The non-Islamists include the traditional monarchies, authoritarian governments in Egypt and Algeria, and secular reformers who may be small in number but have not disappeared. They do not include Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria; he is completely dependent on Iran and Hezbollah and cannot make decisions without them.
“The Obama administration worries about the consequences of excluding all Islamists. It worries, too, about appearing to give a blank check to authoritarian regimes, when it believes there need to be limits and that these regimes are likely to prove unstable over time,” Ross writes. “But as Egypt and the U.A.E. showed with the airstrikes on Islamists in Libya, some of America’s traditional partners are ready to act without us, convinced that the administration does not see all Islamists as a threat — and that America sees its interests as different from theirs. That is a problem.”
Observers who suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood represents a moderate alternative to violent Islamists like ISIS are mistaken, says Hussein Ibish, a Senior Fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine. The Brotherhood’s Islamism “is a continuum, not a corrective” to the more extreme and violent versions embodied by ISIL:
ISIL is among the most violent groups in the world, and while many Brotherhood-aligned parties have turned away from violence as a primary strategy or publicly-acknowledged policy, it doesn’t have a doctrinal prohibition on violence…. Brotherhood groups have used it in the past, and always made an exception when it comes to the Palestinians – and this long before the advent of Hamas. Both groups also publicly espouse the virtue and necessity of “jihad”….There are just too many common origins for Brotherhood-style Islamism to serve as a plausible corrective to ISIL-style more extreme Islamism. It’s no coincidence or surprise that it was Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb who did more to inspire the takfiri and Salafist-jihadist movements than any other modern figure. The non-Islamists are America’s natural partners in the region, argues Ross, a special assistant to President Obama for the Middle East and South Asia from 2009 to 2011. The Obama administration needs to follow three principles in these partnerships, he contends:
First, focus on security and stability. Nothing, including tolerant, pluralist societies, is possible without it.
Second, do not reach out to Islamists; their creed is not compatible with pluralism or democracy. In Tunisia, the Ennahda party surrendered power only when it realized its policies had produced such a backlash that the party’s very survival was threatened. Islamists, even apparent moderates like those of Ennahda, must be left with no choice but coexistence….
Third, America’s support for non-Islamist partners does not require surrendering our voice or supporting every domestic policy. We should press them on pluralism, minority rights and the rule of law.