U.S. Policy and the Coming Islamist Winter

As secular authoritarian regimes topple across the Middle East, there is the danger that governments with a pronounced Islamist bent will replace them. In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, this phenomena bears close watching.

As secular authoritarian regimes topple across the Middle East, there is the danger that governments with a pronounced Islamist bent will replace them. In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, this phenomena bears close watching.

In Tunisia this week, the Islamist Ennahdha (Renaissance) party has become the largest faction in the legislature following the first elections held since long-time strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile in January 2011. European Union monitors declared Sunday’s elections free and fair, with Ennahdha capturing 40 percent of the vote. Failing to obtain an outright majority of seats in the 217-seat parliament, however, it will be forced to share power with the next largest vote recipients, two centrist secular parties.

In Libya, the National Transitional Council announced it would declare an interim government within a month, and elections for a constitutional assembly would be held within eight months, to be followed by votes for a parliament and president within a year. On Sunday, Council leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil declared, “We, as an Islamic state, determined that Islamic law is a major source for legislation, and on this basis any law which contradicts the principles of Islam and Islamic law will be considered null and void.” He then proceeded to outline several changes, the most eyebrow raising of which concerned the lifting of restrictions on polygamy. The speed with which Abdul-Jalil made these pronouncements – without any pretense for gaining approval for them – gives pause to the National Transitional Council’s commitment to a representative government.

Egypt also seems stalled in its progression from Mubarak’s reign to a more pluralistic system. Elections promised by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are expected in November, but it would come as no surprise if they were to be postponed yet again. The Muslim Brotherhood, the strongest political force in the country, has openly called for a government predicated upon Islamic law. But the Brotherhood will be challenged at the polls by a hodgepodge of secular and populist political groups and movements, and it is not expected to secure an outright majority in Egypt’s parliament. There is also the siren call of populist politics in Egypt. Perhaps, in an effort to outdo their Islamist rivals, more Western-oriented candidates such as Amr Moussa have been stridently calling for a break in relations with Israel, with others having encouraged the attack on the Israeli embassy. That the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces would run its own candidate cannot be ruled out as well.

It is entirely foreseeable that Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria will end at some point in the not too distant future. The same fate seems certain for Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

For the United States, these events present many challenges. Despite a great hope for a flowering of democracy, hyped by Western news organizations entranced by the social media savvy younger generation that helped kick off the initial protests, experience has proven that one election does not a democracy make. In this regard, it would be wise to remember the lessons of Algeria and the last Palestinian elections. Additionally, it should not come as a surprise that Islamist groups are in an excellent position to capture the most votes in a first election. They have deep communal ties, are well organized, and will be well funded with money from both Iran and Saudi Arabia. They also advocate an agenda that not only appeals to the semi-literate poor and the disenfranchised, but also to sectors of the business class fearful of the economic policies championed by left-wing parties and buoyed by Turkey’s example of a pro-business Islamist-leaning government.

A trend toward Islamist regimes in the Arab states certainly does not bode well for the United States, or for Israel. Egypt has already become more bellicose, with both the Islamist and secular parties ill-disposed toward maintaining the peace treaty with Israel.

Furthermore, Egyptian societal fractures have undermined its ability to secure the Sinai, one result of which was the August terror attack in southern Israel. The crisis that erupted following the IDF’s pursuit of Palestinian terrorists back into Sinai and the subsequent deaths of Egyptian security personnel caught in the crossfire touched off anti-Israel demonstrations across Egypt that would have been unthinkable in Mubarak’s time and nearly caused a complete rupture in relations.

To cope with the challenge, there are several practical policy steps the U.S. government can take. America must insist on the further promotion of civil society in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, and condition foreign aid on that premise. For Egypt, economic reform and continuation of our $1.3 billion in annual military aid is critical. Congress and the White House should jointly advocate Cairo’s acceptance of IMF reform recommendations, and a bilateral free trade agreement could also be considered.

On the other side of the coin, U.S.-Israel security cooperation should be increased to send a strong signal to any future government in Cairo that hostility toward Israel is a dead end, while at the same time reassuring Jerusalem. In keeping with this, the maintenance of Israel’s qualitative military edge should also be re-evaluated to take into account what is already turning out to be an increasingly unstable region.