The Arab Islamists’ bargain with the West
Optimistic observers of the Arab world might like to believe that the Islamist wave sweeping across the region is but a temporary phase that must be traversed before the people regain control of the revolutions that began in Tunisia and were subsequently hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, Wahhabis and their various strands and offshoots.
Sadly for those who put life and limb on the line only to see the fruits of their struggle stolen by the Islamists who played no part in igniting the Arab Spring, this phase could last for generations. In the meantime, observers interested in the international dimension of the Arab Spring’s consequences may be wondering how the Western powers and Israel on the one hand, and the resurgent Arab Islamists on the other, will relate to one another.
If Israeli and post-9/11 Western rhetoric is to be believed, then the two sides are destined to be locked in interminable conflict. However, the facts point in a different direction.
One of these facts is the cosy relationship enjoyed by the United States and Britain, among others, with the likes of Osama Bin-Ladin before he went independent and, before him, with the extremists of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami when these were seen as a counterweight to progressive pan-Arabism in the 1960s.
Another is the help and encouragement given by Israel first to the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and then to Hamas in the 1980s to counter the influence of the secular Palestine Liberation Organization, which at the time was seen as the bigger threat to the Israeli occupation and the Zionist project.
In other words, Western-Islamist hostility is only relatively recent and, therefore, another scenario could play out as the new Dark Age continues to engulf the Arab world. As Hussein Agha and Robert Malley say in “This is not a revolution”, while the West is embracing and feting yesteryear’s “dangerous” and “extremist” Muslim Brotherhood and painting them as sensible, businesslike pragmatists, the Islamists, in their turn, propose a bargain:
In exchange for economic aid and political support, they will not threaten what they believe are core Western interests: regional stability, Israel, the fight against terror, energy flow. No danger to Western security. No commercial war. The showdown with the Jewish state can wait. The focus will be on the slow, steady shaping of Islamic societies. The US and Europe may voice concern, even indignation at such a domestic makeover. But they’ll get over it. Just as they got over the austere fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia. Bartering – as in, we’ll take care of your needs, let us take care of ours – Islamists feel, will do the trick. Looking at history, who can blame them?
Mubarak was toppled in part because he was viewed as excessively subservient to the West, yet the Islamists who succeed him might offer the West a sweeter because more sustainable deal. They think they can get away with what he could not. Stripped of his nationalist mantle, Mubarak had little to fall back on; he was a naked autocrat. The Muslim Brothers by comparison have a much broader programme – moral, social, cultural. Islamists feel they can still follow their convictions, even if they are not faithfully anti-Western. They can moderate, dilute, defer.
This bargain may surprise those Westerners who have bought into Washington’s, London’s and Tel Aviv’s – and the Islamists’ own – propaganda about a clash of civilizations and similar nonsense.
However, Arab progressives with a long memory will not raise an eyebrow. Given a choice, the former Western imperial powers will always prefer reactionary Islamists to progressive pan-Arab nationalists. The living proof of this is, and always has been, the unbreakable bond between the Western states and Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies, despite the fact that the latter are the antithesis of freedom, democracy and human rights.