Home inFocus A Year of Arab Upheaval (Winter 2011) Arab Spring or Islamist Winter?

Arab Spring or Islamist Winter?

Joel Himelfarb Winter 2011

The Middle East has been shaken to its foundation since December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian vendor, poured a flammable liquid over his body and set himself on fire to protest a lifetime of harassment from police and bureaucrats. In Tunisia, the impact of Bouazizi’s suicidal act (he died 18 days later) was dramatic and immediate. It triggered mass demonstrations and civil unrest that in less than a month drove President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali out of office.

Tunisia’s revolt was followed by large-scale insurgencies directed at autocratic Arab regimes in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. While many in the opposition have touted Western-style democracy as the alternative to dictatorship, it is also undeniable that militant Islamists have been among the major beneficiaries thus far.

Western elites often refer to these revolutions as the Arab “Spring”—a metaphor referring to optimistic periods of transformative political change. In a May 19, 2011 address, President Obama appeared to liken the upheaval in the Middle East to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the American civil rights movement. Unfortunately, the reality on the ground is very different. A close look at three Arab countries where veteran autocrats were toppled during the past year—Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya—shows that liberal democracy advocates and religious minorities have been marginalized, while Islamists have been substantially strengthened.

Egypt’s Downward Spiral

This trend is particularly evident in Egypt, the largest Arab country with a population of more than 80 million. A U.S. ally, former President Hosni Mubarak maintained Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and cooperated with Washington and Jerusalem’s efforts to isolate the radical Hamas regime in Gaza. Egypt’s new government is, by contrast, dominated by Islamists hostile to peace and supportive of Hamas.

In elections for the lower house of the Egyptian Parliament that convened January 23, 2012, Islamists captured more than 70 percent of the seats, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) winning close to 50 percent and the more extreme Salafist Muslim Al-Nour Party winning more than 20 percent.

The Brotherhood is a transnational Islamist organization that seeks to install an Islamic caliphate to rule the world and has chapters in more than 70 countries. Its long history includes collaboration with Nazi Germany, and the group’s alumni include Osama bin Laden’s teacher and mentor, Abdullah Azzam, and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Current al-Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri was reportedly inspired by Brotherhood teachings. Hamas, a terrorist Palestinian movement intent on destroying Israel, is the Brotherhood’s Palestinian affiliate.

After U.S. commandos killed bin Laden in May, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Arab-language statements referred to him as a “Sheikh”—an honorary term—and criticized Washington for killing the terrorist leader. Senior Brotherhood official Kemal Helbawy subsequently praised bin Laden as a “great mujahid,” or holy warrior, and claimed that Washington “planned” the 9/11 attacks.

The group has flatly rejected any diplomatic contact with Israel, and FJP deputy leader Rashad Bayoumi has vowed to pursue legal action against Egypt’s peace accord with the Jewish State.

Brotherhood representatives sometimes sound more moderate than their Salafist parliamentary allies—for example, indicating a willingness to permit alcohol sales to tourists and allow women to sunbathe in certain locations. But tactical differences like this are not unusual in revolutionary movements. Veteran Israeli analyst Barry Rubin likens Brotherhood/Salafist ideological differences to those between Marxist factions a century ago. He observes that future Soviet leader V.I. Lenin blasted orthodox Communists (the Salafists of that era) as “infantile” for seeking to enforce their brand of ideological orthodoxy.

The Salafists and Brotherhood “will compete, but they will also work together, at least tacitly, in fundamentally transforming Egypt,” Rubin writes. “Of course, by their extremism, the Salafists will push the Brotherhood into a tougher stance, and by their readiness to use violence, they will help crush Christians, moderates and women who want more rights.” That is already happening to Egypt’s Christian community.

Coptic Christians, approximately 10 percent of the country’s population, have long felt under siege from militant Islamists of various stripes and Egyptian laws making it difficult to rebuild churches and to teach the Coptic language in Egyptian schools. More recently, the persecution of Christians has taken more violent forms, and the situation appears to have worsened since Mubarak’s ouster.

Islamist mobs emboldened by the military’s passive response have repeatedly attacked Christian churches, homes, and businesses, with many of the mob actions occurring after angry sermons were delivered at Friday prayers. One Christian accused of having a relationship with a Muslim woman had his ear cut off by a Salafist mob. Coptic activists point to other instances in which Muslims launched unprovoked attacks on Christian demonstrators in Cairo, throwing rocks and burning vehicles while police stood by. In some instances, the Egyptian Army itself attacked churches. In November, former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsburg reported in The Huffington Post that Egypt’s military “secretly collaborated with Salafists who have attacked Copts throughout Egypt…. Hundreds of Copts were attacked by unknown assailants en route to Tahrir Square on November 18…while security forces stood by. The latest attack comes in the wake of October’s attack by the army which used live fire and drove vehicles into a crowd of Copts protesting a rash of attacks on Copts and Coptic churches, killing 25 innocent protestors.”

Given this reality, it is not surprising that an estimated 100,000 Christians have left the country since Mubarak’s ouster in February.

Islamists Take Libya and Tunisia

Elsewhere in the region, veteran strongmen found themselves under siege, often from militant Islamists. In Libya, Moammar Qaddafi’s 42-year reign ended as he was driven from power in August. Two months later, he was pulled from a drainpipe and killed by opposition forces.

Although many of Libya’s new leaders have portrayed themselves as “liberal” and “secular,” much of the country’s new leadership consists of Muslim Brotherhood operatives along with senior leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an organization aligned with al-Qaeda. The LIFG’s emir is Abdul Hakim Belhadj—the same man that served as military commander of the Libyan rebels who overthrew Qaddafi.

Unlike Egypt, Libya has yet to hold elections, making the Islamists’ role in the new Libya difficult to predict with certainty. However, a new report prepared for members of Congress suggests that the “Arab Spring” is helping to pave the way for an Islamist takeover of the country. “The very extremist currents that shaped the philosophies of Libyan Salafists and jihadis like Belhadj appear to be coalescing to define the future of Libya,” wrote Michael Smith, a counterterrorism advisor for Kronos LLC, the strategic advisory firm that published the report.

An increasing number of Libyans appear to be having second thoughts about the new leadership, with growing numbers complaining to Western media outlets about the heavy-handed, dictatorial nature of the new regime—which they say runs the country in the same manner as Qaddafi.

Meanwhile, in Tunisia, the winner of October’s national elections was the Ennahda Party headed by Rachid al-Ghannouchi. Headlines in mainstream U.S. media outlets have depicted the party as “moderate,” ignoring or glossing over a large body of evidence that Ennahda and its leadership have long espoused radical views.

In a May 2011 interview with the Al Arab Qatari website, Ghannouchi, who had previously expressed support for suicide bombings, cited the late Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in declaring: “I give you the good news that the Arab region will get rid of the bacillus of Israel.” Ennahda’s platform vows “To struggle for the liberation of Palestine” and “to challenge the Zionist colonial attack which planted in the heart of the homeland an alien entity.” Speaking at a rally celebrating Ennahda’s election victory in November, an invited Hamas representative expressed hope that the liberation of Tunisia would lead to the “liberation of Palestine.”

Secular Tunisians have also expressed concern about remarks by Hamadi Jbeli, a senior Ennahda official, saying the election marked the establishment of a caliphate—an Islamic imperial system of government. “This is what we feared,” said a representative of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party, calling Jbeli’s statement “very dangerous.” On January 28, 2012 more than 8,000 people took to the streets in Tunis denouncing violence committed by Salafist Muslims, who have occupied universities and attacked women on the streets in an effort to force them to wear veils. The demonstrators demanded that the Ennahda-dominated government act against the Salafists. “We got rid of totalitarianism, and we don’t want it back,” read one banner.

Outrage from the White House?

Rather than harshly criticize and denounce these worrisome and violent actions by Islamists in the region, the Obama administration has embraced the movements.

In light of the Muslim Brotherhood victories in elections, the administration reversed long-standing U.S. policy of avoiding contact with Muslim Brotherhood officials. In a February 2011 congressional testimony, National Intelligence Director James Clapper called the Brotherhood “a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence.” Although the administration subsequently tried to walk back that quote, Washington has clearly softened its stance on the Brotherhood. In mid-January 2012, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with FJP leader Mohammad Morsy in Cairo. On the 18th of that month, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson visited the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters, where she met with Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie.

According to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Badie informed Patterson that Sharia is the principle source of legislation in Egypt, and told her the U.S. must act to solve the Palestinian issue if Washington wanted to improve its standing with Arabs and Muslims. Al-Ahram reported that Patterson “admitted that the U.S. made some mistakes in the past and hoped they would not recur in the future.” Just days before her meeting with Badie, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) published a report documenting the large volume of anti-Semitic and radical content on the Brotherhood’s website. Thus far, there appears to be no evidence on the public record that Washington has pressed the incitement issue in meetings with Muslim Brotherhood representatives.

Similarly, when it comes to the Islamist groups in Libya and Tunisia, the Obama administration has refrained from making public statements denouncing acts taken that are unacceptable, or should be considered unacceptable, to the United States. Notably, nothing was said after Ennahda’s Ghannouchi supported “getting rid of the bacillus of Israel.” In fact, six months later, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the Islamists’ win in Tunisia and offered to work with the party’s leaders.

Springtime for Islamists

According to Tawfiq Hamid, a former jihadist who once worked with current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the form of nascent democracies now seen in the Arab World may be doing more harm than good. In Iraq, democracy “has resulted in discrimination against the Christian minority within the country.” And in the Palestinian Authority, “democracy…resulted in Hamas being elected to power.” Hamid continued, “The Arab Spring is likely to continue empowering Islamist movements that will end any hope for modernity within the Arab world.”

Indeed, the “Arab Spring” is looking more and more like an Islamist winter. Washington’s decision to engage the Brotherhood and its affiliates and not publicly denounce their anti-Israel, anti-Western, and anti-pluralism statements and actions is deeply troubling.

Joel Himelfarb is a senior writer with The Investigative Project on Terrorism.