09/11/2012 12:08 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

The Arab Spring's Islamist Inheritors

The turbulence in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring is intensifying. That is true for the shape and character of domestic regimes and the regional politics they affect. External relations, in turn, exercise reciprocating influences on unsettled internal politics. Intrastate and interstate challenges/threats overlap. Palestine and Gaza, Iran, Syria, Iraq -- they are at once fields on which power games and sectarian rivalries are playing out, and the incubator of forces that transgress state boundaries.

The emergence of self-defined Islamist parties and movements as major or, in some places, dominant forces focus attention on questions as to their character, aims, and strategies. From the American perspective, all Islamist groups in the region had been seen as worrisome. This was true, too, for the House of Saud, for quite different reasons. "Islamist" is not a useful term for explicating this complex reality. To make sense of what practical meaning any sect or movement has, we should parse the term. At the literal level, "Islamist" refers to any formation that identifies itself as drawing on Muslim tradition. That is to say, they are not avowedly secular, as was the Ba'ath Party at its origins. They are little different, in this sense, from Christian Democratic parties in Europe or many elements of the Republican and Democratic parties.

"Salafism" refers to those who promote a literal reading of the Quran and ancillary texts, the organizing of society on the principles and practices laid down in Sharia law, and uniting the believers of the Ummah in a manifest spiritual community. An essential complementary element of Salafism is the rejection of foreign influences and "modernity." F. B. Ali underscores that "[t]his often translates into opposition to foreigners, foreign powers and Muslims believed to be influenced by or allied to foreigners." Some Salafis (and Wahhabis) take this opposition further by engaging in jihad against foreign "infidels," which, in today's popular usage, means a struggle that involves violence. They "are properly termed Jihadis. Thus, all Jihadis are usually Salafis, but not all Salafis are Jihadis." The House of Saud are Salafists; Osama bin-Laden was a Jihadi. Saudi leaders at times see the kingdom's political advantage in enabling or even encouraging Jihadist action -- as they did in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria. That is a tactical judgment largely free of theological content.

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt challenges the pillars of Saudi strategy in the Middle East while posing a dilemma for the United States. The two partners have devised a response whose centerpiece is an understanding with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as to the terms of what amounts to "peaceful coexistence." Its cardinal features are these:

  • The MB agrees not to foment unrest outside Egypt by encouraging like-minded parties elsewhere in the region, the Gulf above all. In other words, it will observe the precept of "Islamism in one country" -- for the time being, anyway. That is to say, the Muslim Brotherhood's version of an Islamist state, as opposed to the Saudis' Wahhabi version. It will play down Egypt's experience as a model for reconciling political Islam with democratic institutions.
  • The MB will continue Egypt's participation in the cordon sanitaire aimed at isolating and sanctioning Iran. Contacts between Cairo and Tehran will be kept to a minimum. Accepting the invitation to participate in the periodic conference of the Non-Aligned Movement held last week in Tehran is not at variance with this undertaking.
  • It will refrain from entering into an active partnership with the Turkish government led by the Development & Justice Party under Recep Erdogan, which has been cited widely as an already established model for how an Islamist party could rule within a democratic framework. Instead, it will give priority to ties with Arab Sunni states, above all with Saudi Arabia, whose authenticity and legitimacy as protector of the holy sites of Islam will be reaffirmed.
  • The MB will not overturn the Peace Treaty with Israel or break entirely the blockade of Gaza, this despite the fact that Hamas' leaders are soul brothers of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. That was made easier for Morsi by the assault on military outposts close to the Egyptian/Gaza border by Salafist Jihadi groups operating in the Sinai. Security conveniently dictated tight control of the Rafah crossing. This approach converges with that of the military leaders, former and present, who have favored the modus vivendi with Israel, on the latter's terms, for their own reasons. The cohabitation now taking shape between Morsi and the revamped Egyptian military confirms this agreement re Gaza.

Washington and Riyadh have worked together assiduously to win the Muslim Brotherhood's acceptance of this deal. The incentives they offered were two-fold. Saudi Arabia would open its coffers to ensure that the parlous Egyptian economy is able to keep its head above water. Given widespread expectations among MB supporters that their electoral success would translate into improved living conditions, this external aid is crucial for the MB's maintaining its credibility and domestic support.

The United States, for its part, has agreed to suspend its aversion to Islamist parties (e.g., Hamas in Gaza) by defending the outcome of the Egyptian election as fair and valid. This exception thereby also restores some measure of its own credibility as the sponsor and well-wisher of procedural democracy. An ancillary element of the American approach to Egypt was to send a clear message to the generals that any attempt to rig the presidential electoral results would lead to a cut-off in military assistance and cooperation. General Tantawi and his colleagues reluctantly agreed. Washington's high level intervention likely emboldened Morsi to make wholesale changes in the army's high command and to loosen markedly their grip on the levers of power.

This set of understandings does not foretell the end of the era of flux or the putting in place of the foundations for a stable regional order. For one thing, the terms of the entente between Cairo and Riyadh evidently are flexible enough to allow Morsi to pursue a major initiative on Syria that would bring Iran into a four-party concert, including Turkey, that aims to mediate the conflict and facilitate a political resolution. The fact that Qatar currently is extending more financial assistance than is Saudi Arabia (with fewer conditions) does leave Morsi some room to maneuver. Still, it is hard to imagine that it was taken over staunch Saudi objections. Yet his initiative -- on the surface, anyway -- seems to contradict the logic of a Shi'ite/Sunni, Persian-Arab contest as being the organizing principle of a new Middle East regional system.

The Muslim Brotherhood leadership is skillful and adept. They have been playing the game of practical politics for 80 years. Moreover, they share with other Egyptian elites a strong sense of prideful nationalism. They are unlikely to accept meekly the role of junior partners of the Saudis in the anti-Shia camp. The Muslim Brothers play a long game.

Two conclusions about this state of affairs can be stated with some confidence. One is that the United States clearly has lost a measure of control of the region's diplomatic game(s). The other is that an even more intricate game now has begun that will see a shifting of tactical alliances in response to evolving conditions and the recalculation of interests. Washington faces a formidable dilemma in dealing with the consequences.