Abdel Monem Said Aly doesn’t like the term “Arab Spring.” In the Middle East, “We go from winter to summer and in between there are only sandstorms.”
His reference hints at the region’s political turbulence and uncertainty, David Schenker writes in World Affairs. There is no cause to panic at political Islam’s resurgence, he argues: Egypt won’t turn into an Iranian-style Islamic Republic any time soon. But Islamist groups’ pronounced illiberal tendencies threaten to dilute the democratic thrust of recent revolts, while glib predictions that the region is shifting to the Turkish model may not be as reassuring as some assume:
Indeed, notwithstanding the Muslim Brotherhood’s irritation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s September 2011 suggestion that Egypt should adopt the Turkish system of government and ensure the secular nature of the state in its constitution, it appears that the MB is indeed pursuing the Turkish model. Not the old, pre-Erdogan paradigm, wherein the military served as the guardian of secularism in the state, but a new model, in which an Islamist party (i.e., the AKP) secures a majority in Parliament and then gradually leverages its legislative authority to divest the military of its traditional power and target secular political opponents.
Few who have traveled to the Middle East since the uprisings began would dispute the vastly changed atmosphere there, especially the increased freedom of speech and the animation of political discussion. Regardless of how one views the future of the ongoing uprisings, ending authoritarian regimes is a positive development for the peoples of the region. But that assessment could change should secular dictators be replaced with theocratic dictators.
In light of the trends, it seems almost inevitable that much of the political space in the region will soon be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists, who will, as always, focus on dawa, or Islamic propagation. By controlling the education and social affairs–related ministries, the Islamists will have even more of a leg up on radically transforming society in their direction. It will be difficult in this environment for “liberal” or secular parties to survive, much less thrive.
Instead of liberal democracy in the region, populist and Islamist politics will likely fill the gap left by the authoritarians. Of course, should the Islamists take power and fail to govern well, eradicate endemic corruption, create jobs, and improve the economy, they too can be voted out of power. That is, provided that these states continue to hold elections and viable alternatives are not snuffed out. The challenge for Washington in the coming years, then, will be to maintain relations with Islamist states, while simultaneously helping to preserve and strengthen ostensibly liberal parties.
Accomplishing these goals will not be easy. Some of the emerging governments in the region—Islamist or otherwise—may be overtly hostile toward the US. It’s also conceivable that a democratically elected Arab government or two will be committed to the destruction of the state of Israel, a policy that would complicate productive US bilateral relationships with these states. And supporting the non-Islamist opposition in these states—via the provision of US technical assistance, for example—would almost certainly be viewed by the Islamists as interference in domestic affairs.