The Arab Counterrevolution

(New York Review of Books) Hussein Agha and Robert Malley - Since Mubarak's ouster, everything that has happened in the region has offered a striking contrast with what came before. Protests turned violent in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria. Foreign nations got involved in each of these conflicts. Ethnic, tribal, and sectarian divisions have come to the fore. Old parties and organizations as well as political and economic elites contend for power, leaving many protesters with the feeling that the history they were making not long ago is now passing them by. From all corners of the Arab world, Islamists of various tendencies are coming in from the cold. Virtually everywhere they are the largest single group as well as the best organized. In Egypt and Tunisia, where they had been alternatively tolerated and repressed, they are full-fledged political actors. In Libya, where they had been suppressed, they joined and played a major part in the rebellion. In Syria, where they had been massacred, they are a principal component of the protest movement. The lesson seems clear: the safest path to power can be to avoid its unabashed exercise. In Egypt, some Brotherhood leaders made it plain that they will regulate their share of the parliamentary vote, preferring to sit in the legislature without controlling it. They will not run for high-profile offices, such as the presidency. They will build coalitions. They will lead from behind. The thorniest challenge to the traditional middle-of-the-road Islamists will come from the Salafists. As the Muslim Brotherhood struggles to strike a balance, the Salafists could emerge as unintended beneficiaries. In Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, the most significant future rivalry is unlikely to be between Islamists and so-called pro-democracy secular forces. It might well be between mainstream Islamists and Salafists. After some hesitation, the U.S. and others have generally taken the side of the protesters. Several considerations were at work, among them the hope that this support will strengthen those most liable to espouse pro-Western views and curry favor with those most likely to take the helm. New rulers might express gratitude toward those who stood by them. But any such reflex probably will be short-lived. The West likely will awake to an Arab world whose rulers are more representative and assertive, but not more sympathetic or friendly. The French and the British helped liberate the Arab world from four centuries of Ottoman rule; the U.S. enabled the Afghan mujahideen to liberate themselves from Soviet domination and freed the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Before long, yesterday's liberators became today's foes. The sound and fury of revolutionary moments can dull the senses and obscure the more ruthless struggles going on in the shadows. Hussein Agha is Senior Associate Member of St. Antony's College, Oxford. Robert Malley, formerly Special Assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs and Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, is now Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group.

2011-09-09 00:00:00

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