Sunday, November 27, 2011

The dark side of the crescent

Boaz Bismuth

Current events in Egypt – street riots and elections – have propelled the Muslim Brotherhood into headlines all over the world. The headlines are not particularly optimistic. Political Islam appears to be gaining momentum not just in Egypt but across the Arab world.

Between now and January, Egypt will go through three rounds of elections, with an outcome that is still murky. In the interval, Morocco has joined Tunisia this weekend in granting its Islamist party an electoral majority. The road to democracy in the Arab world seems to inevitably involve a pit stop in political Islam. The question of whether we can avoid such a way station is no longer relevant. Rather, the question is, how can we avoid getting stuck there for too long?

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Even since the outbreak of street demonstrations leading to Mubarak's downfall, the Obama administration has been trying to find a formula for combining democracy and stability. On Friday, the government made the same choice it made last January: Abandon the present government (Mubarak then, Tantawi now) in favor of the street. Even The New York Times, which generally supports Obama, has remarked on the great risk he is taking. After all, the Egyptian military for years defended Mubarak, American interests in the region and the peace process between Israel and Egypt.

But Washington has chosen to gamble. On Friday, while the ruling military junta was appointing old-guard politician Kamal Ganzouri its prime minister, the U.S. administration transmitted a clear message to the masses in Tahrir Square. The U.S. is conditioning continued military aid to Egypt on a speedy transfer of power to the newly elected government. Under these circumstances, it is clear that Ganzouri will not have a single day of grace.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood is not only enjoying a grace period, but also the opportunity to engage in productive dialogue with Washington and Western diplomats in Cairo. The main thing is that there must be no power vacuum. The Muslim Brotherhood, by the way, knows how to be pragmatic when it needs to, and patience is one of its strong suits. No one in Egypt plans to forgo $3 billion dollars per year in American aid, not even the Brotherhood – especially at a time when the country's tourism is dead and its economy is on the verge of collapse. In the meantime, Egypt has descended into a battle of all against all. "Moderate" Islam is winking, even at Obama.

"Moderate" Islam, which brought us the Arab Spring, has a long history and a great deal of patience as well. Morocco's Islamic party, which won the most recent elections, came in third place in the 2002 elections and second place in 2007. (At the time, their electoral success was greeted with shock and concern.) Now, the party is set to present its choice for prime minister. Morocco and Tunisia have never been closer.

And we have not even mentioned the real tinderbox of this entire Spring: Syria. Assad's regime will do everything it can to take down as many victims as it can. Above all, it wants to hurt Turkey. Ankara has exhibited patience with Damascus just as it did at the outset with Tripoli. But the severe repression of both regimes toward their citizens has forced Ankara to change tacks. Assad unwisely decided to exact a quick revenge, from a position of weakness, when he began aiding Turkey's Kurdish underground. He thus paved the way for Turkish intervention that will only accelerate his regime's downfall.

In this instance too, Islam will determine the future. In the confrontation with his country's opposition, Assad relies on Shiite Iran, while the opposition relies on a united Sunni front that stretches from Morocco to Qatar and includes Saudi Arabia.

A political or military conflict between Turkey and Iran may come about much sooner than we thought. It is not clear where things are going. Will we have democracy or stability? There is another possibility: Neither of those. Because history teaches that when the crescent rises, its light usually casts a shadow in the form of brandished spears and swords.

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