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The Waning of the Islamic Tide in the Middle East: Just Maybe

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Ever since the Iranian Islamic Revolution (1979), the Taliban seizure of power in Afghanistan (1996) and the 9/11 attack (2001), Americans have seen a rising tide of Greater Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalism. The electoral victories of Islamist parties in Turkey in 2002 (AKP), Gaza Strip in 2006 (Hamas), Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood) and Tunisia (Ennahda) in 2011 have reinforced this trend. So, too, has been the recent success of Islamic fundamentalist fighters in places as disparate as Syria Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Yet, it now seems that the tide may be turning against Islamic fundamentalism in much of the Middle East outside of the Iranian Shiite sphere.

Why has this been happening? In every country there are often several Islamist parties that fight with each other. A further regional split is the Sunni/Shiite division. Secular military and security forces, aligned with the old order and aware of their fate in fundamentalist states, are mostly hostile to the fundamentalists. Many secularists, women, minorities and increasingly youth are determined to avoid the traditional straitjacket of the fundamentalists. The inability of the fundamentalists, who lack political or economic experience, to run a modern globalized economy or open polity is a serious problem. Jobs, not religion, are the main issue for much of the youth. External intervention with massive financial support (such as the $15 billion provided by Gulf states to Egypt) can be critical in stopping the fundamentalists.

In Egypt the destruction of the Islamist regime and jailing of its supporters has been a major setback. Despite problems, the military after the July coup seems likely secure with most Muslim Brotherhood leaders in jail or on trial. If a September Zogby poll showing 70 percent confidence in the military holds, this will be a major defeat for fundamentalists.

For a decade in Turkey Tayip Erdogyan's AKP was a showcase Islamist party winning three elections, running the economy effectively, and taming the pro-Western military. But, his support for the losing parties -- Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the rebels in Syria -- and supporting actors unpopular in Turkey -- Hamas in Gaza (15 percent popularity), and the Kurds in Iraq -- have left him isolated. As his attacks on Israel have upset NATO leaders, so too have his hints that the Americans are behind many of his problems alienated a once close American ally.

Rising economic problems, Erdogyan's fundamentalism and authoritarian style brought out hundreds of thousands of largely secular protesters into the streets this summer. With his religious base wilting under the enmity of a former ally, the popular Sufi leader Fethuallah Gulen, Erdogyan is now in serious political trouble. The large-scale corruption scandal that led to the resignation of three cabinet minister now threatens to engulf Erdogyan himself. Given reliance on major capital inflows and large current account deficits (over 7 percent of GNP), any loss of confidence in Erdogyan could easily cripple both him and his party.

Tunisia, after Turkey, seemed to be the place where the moderate Islamists were safest. In October 2011 the Ennahda party won 40 percent of the vote. But, unable to manage the economy with 22 percent unemployment, outflanked by Salafists, facing anger over the killings of two secular politicians, rousing women's fears over their rights in a Constitution, and dealing with a largely secular society led Ennahda into a corner. Ennahda voluntarily ceded power to an interim technocratic government, which just took power this week. The early polls show Ennahda crashing from only one-third of the population expressing confidence in Ennahda, aising a distinct possibility that it could be out of power for a long time.

In Syria in 2011 it seemed likely that an opposition group of secularists and Islamists would overthrow the secular dictator Bashar Assad. Now, despite the growing role of Islamist al Nusra and ISIS, Bashar Assad, with support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, will likely stay in power.This outcome would be a major setback for the Islamists.

Ever since the slim electoral victory (43-41 percent) in Gaza in 2006 and the crushing of Fatah forces in 2007, Islamist Hamas has ruled Gaza. The ascension of Morsi to the Egyptian presidency in 2012 seemed to suggest a brighter future. With the military coup in Egypt, the split with Bashar Assad which led to the ouster of the Hamas Politburo from Damascus and the rising hostility of Shiite Iran towards Sunni Hamas, Gaza is increasingly isolated. With a $450 GNP/capita, 28 percent unemployment rate, Egypt and Israel on its borders and labelled a terrorist state by the United States and EU, its economic future looks grim. Polls have shown that only 29 percent of Gazans support Hamas compared to 41 percent for secular Fatah. While 65 percent say conditions are bad or very bad, only 16 percent find them good. And Hamas's budget for next year has an amazing 75 percent deficit. As seen by its effort at reconciliation with its arch enemy Fatah, Hamas' future seems bleak.

As Iran has shown, none of this means that Islamic fundamentalism is finished. But, for the first time in over two decades, the wave of Islamic fundamentalism in the Greater Middle East outside the Iranian Shiite sphere may well be receding, at least for now.