Islamists ‘not our friends’: Brotherhood ‘a continuum, not corrective’ to ISIS

islamists nyt


“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.


Libya’s recovery short-lived as country risks falling apart

libya-free_1835951cA comeback by Libya’s oil industry may be short-lived as a confrontation between armed groups risks splitting the country three years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Reuters reports:

Oil production has risen to 650,000 barrels per day (bpd), five times the level two months ago, in a rare success for the economy at a time when armed groups and two parliaments fight for control of the North African country. ….The recent increase comes after a group of federalist rebels campaigning for regional autonomy implemented a deal to reopen major eastern ports such as Es Sider.

But Libya expert Dirk Vandewalle said federalist rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran might close these ports again, after a rival armed faction from the western city of Misrata took control of the capital Tripoli.

This group has pushed to reinstate Libya’s old General National Congress (GNC), refusing to recognize the new House of Representatives. Part of the Misrata forces are backed by the Muslim Brotherhood. In response, the federalists might opt to exert their power over oil exports and the economy as a whole.

“There is always the possibility that the federalists may take this opportunity to reassert themselves,” said Vandewalle, author of the book “History of Modern Libya”.

Secret air strikes are “an astounding and unusual action,” said William Lawrence of the Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, adding that the US would not have approved of the move.

Libya expert Lawrence agrees that Security Council talks need to take place, saying, “Libya needs to be stabilized and hasn’t been able to do so on its own.” Instead, Lawrence tells DW, a UN mission is needed to help the country establish reliable political institutions and an inclusive government: “We need a political dialogue that includes the Islamists but doesn’t let them take the lead.”

In the campaign to overthrow Qaddafi, many militias currently fighting each other were comrades-in-arms. But many have since become enemies on the battlefield, RFE/RL reports.

“Over time, the different groups have associated themselves with different political currents, primarily nationalists and Islamists, and that automatically pits one against the other,” says George Joffe, a Libya expert and lecturer at the University of Cambridge, who estimates that around 350 different militias are currently operating in Libya.

“Each of them has represented an autonomous power center and has been very unwilling to share power with other groups. On top of all that, there is the question of the regional and tribal identities of the groups involved.”

Three important themes that have surfaced in the most recent episode of Islamist/Non-Islamist conflict concern the bifurcation of Libya, foreign intervention and the proxy war that Libya has become, Jason Pack of told Aljazeera’s Inside Story.

While much of the world’s attention has been focused on crises further east, the situation in Libya in the past few weeks has dissolved into the worst chaos since the 2011 war that ousted Moammar Gaddafi, the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor and Adam Taylor observe.

With reports that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are now getting involved, the conflict has turned into something of a proxy war for the Middle East’s big powers…..Put simply, the crisis could be framed as a contest between Islamist and Arab nationalists — a familiar trope throughout the Arab world.

But there are other factors at play, including regional rivalries, rump parliaments and outside agendas that don’t always align neatly, they add, providing a helpful guide to the key actors in the Libyan maelstrom….RTWT

Al Jazeera case ends illusions of Egypt’s democratic transition


Al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste has said in his first statement since being jailed with two colleagues in Egypt that he is “devastated and outraged,” the BBC reports:

In a statement issued by his brothers, he said the trial had been an “attempt to use the court to intimidate and silence critical voices in the media”. Prosecutors, he said, had failed to produce any concrete evidence that the three had spread false news. The seven-year jail terms handed to the three sparked outrage.

“Al Jazeera definitely was biased,” said Hisham Kassem, founder of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the first publisher of the independent Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper. “It was used by the Qatari government in its mud fight with Egypt,” he said, referring to the Emir of Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood around the region and criticism of governments that oppose the Islamist organization.

“But the way to confront such a thing,” Mr. Kassem said, “is to expose it, not to imprison its journalists.”

The verdict has ended any illusions that Egypt’s democratic transition has been postponed rather than cancelled, observers suggest.

egypt sisi“Who would have thought, when Egypt was in the throes of its revolutionary fervor, when its people had apparently vanquished a dictator with an irresistible cry for democracy, that its people would so soon approve of this farcical, authoritarian injustice?” says analyst Waleed Aly:

We can be outraged by this – even if we didn’t much care until an Australian got caught up in it. We can even deride Egypt, as Peter Reith recently did, as “a very nasty totalitarian police state” with “a pretend judiciary” – even if that has been true for 30 years during which time we were happy to call Egypt our friend. But if we look hard enough, we’ll recognise there is something all too human about this monstrous injustice. We’ll see this is what happens to a nation that has terrified itself. If even durable, mature, successful democracies like us or the United States can trade in our principles for hysteria on occasion, what hope did a dysfunctional nation with no real political culture like Egypt have?

The prosecution has also raised doubts about the independence of the judiciary.

dunne_kaveh_20132“Well, we really don’t know whether there are any instructions to judges and so forth on how to rule in this case. But we can say a couple of things,” says Michele Dunne (right), a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

“One of them is that these cases come out of the Egyptian government. It came out of Egyptian intelligence, the Interior Ministry and so forth. And they played a very active role, she told PBS NewsHour (above).

“The other thing is that, whether or not there is any direct involvement or instructions by Sisi or others in the Egyptian government to the judiciary, certainly, all the signals that President Sisi has sent, everything he says is in line with this, very, very harsh, anti-dissent, anti-Brotherhood, that the Brotherhood are terrorists and so forth,” said Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“I agree with Michelle that the military-backed political order has created an enabling environment in which repression has flourished. And I do think that it’s very difficult to parse out how things happen and why,” said Michael Hanna, a Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation.

“I do know that there were severe disagreements within the Egyptian government, at fairly high levels, when the Al-Jazeera English journalists were arrested. Of course, to try to unwind this kind of case requires the expenditure of a lot of political capital and a very big political fight that no players have as of yet taken up the challenge to accomplish.”

In his prosecution of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and activists, Judge Youssef had brought ridicule to Egypt with his unfair and arbitrary rulings and he should be removed from the case, democracy advocate Kassem told VOA.

“Due process was not observed during any of these trials where mass death sentences were shelled out and it’s continuing,” said Kassem. “Now, obviously there is something seriously wrong. This is not a minor error or so. Death sentences do not come en masse. So, it is time that there is an administrative intervention from the ministry of justice to put an end to this. It is becoming an international farce.”

Sisi Islamic not Islamist

“The attitude of the liberal and secular sectors towards al-Sisi’s religious views is puzzling,” notes Khalil al-Anani, a leading academic expert on Islamist movements, Egyptian politics and democratization in the Middle East.

Some of them seem to have entered a state of disappointment and shock, due to the conspicuous presence of religion in his speeches. Apparently, their conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood prevented them from adequately expressing this shock, so as not to give the Brotherhood a chance to gloat over it. Many of them have, after all, claimed that their support of the July 3 coup was out of fear that the Brotherhood would turn Egypt into a theocracy, not to mention their condemnation of what they considered a crackdown on personal and religious freedoms during Mohamed Morsi’s rule.

“Al-Sisi might not attempt to turn Egypt into a religious state following the Iranian or Pakistani models, as was the case during the rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the late 1970s and 1980s, for example,” he observes. “But he definitely isn’t going to build a free civil state where individuals enjoy personal freedoms without the guardianship of the state and the president.”

Stop playing favorites

“By imprisoning critics and members of the Brotherhood and intensifying a crackdown on dissent, Sisi and his new government risk leaving opponents with little alternative but to take to the streets once again,” says David J. Kramer, President of Freedom House:

No one wants to see more instability in Egypt, but the “stability” Sisi claims to be bringing to his country may be very short-lived. That possibility should force the Obama administration to develop a policy that stops playing favorites with whoever is in power—whether Morsi or Sisi or the next person—and instead focuses on democratic principles. Such a change in approach would serve U.S. interests better than pretending that Egypt is on the right path or buying the rhetoric of Egypt’s latest authoritarian leader.

As if to prove his point, Egypt this week experienced a wave of violent attacks by Islamist militants based in the Sinai peninsula.

“This is going to continue to be an issue so long as Islamists assess that they have no political space in which they can act and so long as the heavy handedness of the security forces continues,” said Firas Abi Ali, Middle East and North Africa analyst at IHS country risk in London.

‘Revolution to disillusion’: US struggles with an Egypt in turmoil

egyptacusAs Egypt prepares for a presidential election that is likely to re-establish authoritarian rule, the civil society groups and Facebook activists once feted by Western media are marginalized and impotent, having failed to make the transition from protest to politics.

“In reality, the youths who helped bring down two presidents were squeezed in a mighty power struggle between deeply entrenched old-style forces: the Muslim Brotherhood, a grassroots movement based on religion and charity, and the formidable authoritarian state built on patronage networks nurtured since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952,” writes FT analyst Heba Saleh:

While in 2011 Egypt’s young revolutionaries seemed to have irreversibly turned the tide of history, the country’s political realities soon set in. It was the army that delivered the final push to Mr Mubarak, and Brotherhood supporters who beefed up the numbers in Tahrir Square. Fragmented, with nothing like the once well-honed electoral machine of the more-practised Muslim Brotherhood and none of the financial resources and connections of Mubarak-era politicians, young people could not translate their initial blaze of glory and hope into electoral backing to help change the system through institutional means.

Analysts say it was too much to expect a transformation led by youthful protesters in a country unused to democratic practice and emerging from decades of authoritarianism, under which politics was all but dead. New groups, including the liberal and leftwing parties that some of the young activists joined, lack the funds, organisation and rhetorical skills to generate broad appeal in a large and impoverished population.

“Criticism of the youth did not take into consideration that they came to age in an era when there was no politics and no organisation, and accordingly they need time,” says Rabab al-Mahdi, a political-science professor at the American University in Cairo.

She believes that attempts by the regime to shut down protests by disaffected youth will ultimately fail. The legacy of the “Nasserist state” was based on the government’s provision of material benefits, which bought the political quiescence of the population. That is no longer tenable given the country’s precarious economy. “People have political and economic expectations that are not being met through the old formula. The machinery of the state is already eroded. There will be more instability ahead.”

“The January 2011 Revolution was characterized by a democratic agenda and a clear popular demand to seize the right to choose, enjoy liberty and escape from the tutelage that had been exercised by Egypt’s rulers in different forms from 1952 to 2011,” analyst Amr Hamzawy writes for Egypt Source. “Despite this, attempts to re-impose this tutelage on the Egyptian people have not ceased and have come from increasingly diverse sources.”

Debating Egypt

“We are living with the repercussions of a failed revolution,” said Khalil al-Anani, adjunct professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. “This is leading to a lot of despair among youth. A lot of young Egyptians feel betrayed by the political elite and have no sense of hope for the future.”

Aspirations now lie with Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the former army chief who led Mursi’s overthrow and whose only rival in a presidential election next week is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi. El-Sisi is expected to win and inherit a nation many Egyptians say can’t cope with another false dawn. In his election campaign, El-Sisi declared he is ready for “this big battle, the battle of fighting terrorism, the battle of building, eliminating poverty and diseases and establishing a modern country.” ….

“People revolted because there was some sort of a political alternative for them,” said Ashraf El-Sherif, a political science lecturer at the American University in Cairo. “This time people know there’s no alternative.”

dunne_kaveh_20132Since the removal of the Mubarak regime in 2011, the United States has struggled to develop a coherent policy of engagement that can protect American interests while winning trust among Egyptians and their leaders, says Michele Dunne (right), a Senior Associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

American assistance, either funding for NGOs during the Morsi period or military assistance to the Sisi regime, has often been unpopular with many Egyptians, she writes in a new briefing for the Arab Reform Initative.

Throughout this period, the US has focused on cooperating with whoever is in power in order to continue security cooperation. Cooperation with the regime, however, may clash with American interests in supporting a new democratic opening, says Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

US strategy should be based on a forthright assessment of what, rather than whom, the United States should support in Egypt, she contends:

Simple principles can help to guide this assessment. First, only by maintaining a reasonable level of stability can Egypt be a good security ally or counterterrorism partner for the United States, a good peace partner for Israel, and a good trade partner for Europe. Second, overcoming the current situation of repression, protest, and escalating insurgency will require a situation in which Egyptians can move beyond polarization to build consensus on the future of their country. Thus, what the United States should support is the opening of space for free expression, political and social pluralism, and civil society activity. Third, Egypt faces dire economic challenges that can only be resolved by responsible government reforms (gradual replacement of subsidies with cash payments to the poor) and facilitating job creation by the private sector (especially small and medium enterprises). Fourth, since Egypt faces a real challenge by terrorist groups based in the Sinai, the United States should support a policy of economic and political engagement with the population in that region in order to combat support for extremism. RTWT

The European Union is also in danger of repeating past mistakes, according to Álvaro Vasconcelos, an Associate Senior Researcher with the Arab Reform Initiative.

“EU policies toward the countries of the southern Mediterranean went through several phases in the past two decades, with varying degrees of emphasis on issues such as democratic reform, migration management and the fight against terrorism,” he contends:

There is another course of action which the EU could adopt in Egypt that is more compatible with its values and with its long-term interests in a democratic and developed neighbourhood around its borders.

This would encourage a genuinely national dialogue in which all political currents could participate. The EU needs to understand that a president elected while so many opposition leaders are in jail will not have the legitimacy necessary to assure stability and, at the end of the day, to overcome the serious political, security, social and economic challenges facing Egypt.

The EU, in short, needs to support an inclusive policy among all Egyptian political forces and, above all, demand the liberation of the almost 20 000 political prisoners from all corners of the political arena. It needs to return to a policy of defending human rights and empowering civil society, to whose most of the financial support it offers should be directed.


Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy

TEMPTATIONS ISLAMISTAfter a dizzying rise to power in Egypt’s parliament and presidency in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood faced mass discontent, was ousted by the military, declared a terrorist organization and its followers were arrested and hounded into exile. Egypt is the most extreme case – but from Morocco to Jordan, and nearly everywhere in between, once-ascendant Islamists find themselves facing unprecedented challenges.

In his new book, Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2014), Brookings Fellow Shadi Hamid steps back from the headlines to examine how and why Islamist movements change over time, what animates their worldview and what their ultimate objectives are for society. Hamid conducted hundreds of interviews with Islamist leaders and activists across the region to develop a bold thesis: that repression compelled Islamists to moderate their politics, work in coalitions, and de-emphasize Islamic law. Ironically, then, democratic openings have tended to push Islamists toward their original conservatism, oftentimes leading them to overreach and confrontation.

On April 9, the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World will launch Hamid’s new book with a discussion of the past and future of political Islam. CBS News Correspondent Margaret Brennan will moderate the discussion, after which Hamid will take audience questions. Copies of the book will also be available for sale at the event.

When: Wednesday, April 9, 2:00 to 3:30 PM

Where: The Brookings Institution, Falk Auditorium, 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036