The End of Pan-Islamisim
In the three years since the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” a number of striking changes have occurred in the Arab world. First and foremost, the Arab Spring represents the end of pan-Islamism championed by Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the beginning of an open war between Sunnis and Shias. At the end of the 1980s, Iran was perceived by the Arabs as the spearhead of the war against Israel. Because of its total engagement against Israel and the U.S., most of the Arab world was ready to ignore the fact that Iran fought an open war with an Arab state – Iraq – for more than eight years.
Iran represented a new approach to preaching Islam, a unique engine to expanding Islam worldwide, while its ecumenical approach to revolutionary Islam was a reason for many Sunni movements and states to reconcile with Shia Iran. The civil war in Syria triggered a negative reaction towards Iran, which became the enemy of the Sunni world and has been treated as such ever since.
The Rise and Fall of the Muslim Brotherhood
Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood had at one point agreed to transcend its Sunni background and cooperate with Iran. However, after having been defeated in Syria by the Assad regime in the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood had continued its traditional approach to clandestine activity and strengthened its bond with its clientele in most Arab countries where its political activity was forbidden.
The events in Egypt offered a unique opportunity for the Brotherhood to seize power after 80 years of underground activity. Hamas, its offspring, was at its height in Gaza, and the events in Syria had initially been another window of opportunity for a comeback.
Most interesting was the U.S. attitude of total support towards the Brotherhood, since it had been democratically elected in Egypt. It seemed that the American administration thought that a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Middle East would not be detrimental to U.S. interests. The fall of President Morsi in the aftermath of the counter-coup staged by the liberal forces and the Egyptian Army signified to the Arab world that there was another way different from the Brotherhood’s, and most important, it meant the end of political Islam. The events in Tunisia also proved that the Brotherhood (represented there by the Al-Nahda party) was unable to maintain power.
Hamas found itself at the end of the day without a sponsor and is today paying the price of belonging to the Brotherhood. Cut off from the Egyptian Brotherhood, its mother source, and besieged by both Israel and the Egyptian Army, Hamas has been reduced to its true size.
In Syria, it was the extreme fundamentalist movements that became the spearhead fighting Assad, relegating the Brotherhood to an insignificant role.
Arabs View the Decline of the U.S.
In Arab eyes, the U.S. administration committed two major errors in the past three years. The first was to “betray” a 30-year ally – Mubarak – and favor instead the Muslim Brotherhood. The Obama administration continued to call for a Morsi comeback and “punished” the transition government by stopping the delivery of weapon systems and refraining from transferring a substantial part of agreed American aid to Egypt, which had begun with the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. As a result, the popularity of the U.S. declined to its lowest ebb since the era of President Nasser. Today, Egypt is looking for a “balanced” relationship with the superpowers. This means a substantial rapprochement with Russia, a commitment to purchase almost $2 billion worth of Russian weapons, and a waning U.S. influence on Egyptian policies.
The second U.S. mistake in Arab eyes was to refrain from punishing Syria for its use of chemical weapons. This decision proved to the Arabs what they had suspected for quite some time. The U.S. did not attack because it wanted to mend fences with Iran. Absurd as it might seem, by refraining from attacking Syria, and stopping material aid to the opposition forces (mainly the Muslim militias), the U.S. appeared to be favoring the continued existence of the Assad regime, backed by Hizbullah and Iran. The agreement in Geneva with Iran on its nuclear program appeared to be another sign of the American shift. The Arabs are convinced that the U.S. had reversed its policy and had concluded that Iran could be a counterbalance to the Arabs. In the Arab perception, the old alliance between the Shah’s regime and the U.S. was resurrected from the ashes at the expense of the traditional alliance with the moderates of the Arab world.
Winners and Losers
As a result of the weakening of U.S. influence in the region, the vacuum was very quickly filled by the Russians. Unlike the U.S., which deserted Mubarak at the first opportunity, Russia has stuck by its Syrian ally for many reasons and won Arab admiration and sympathy. Russia is making a comeback in North Africa and Egypt and lately is being courted by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates.
Together with the U.S., another big loser from the Arab Spring is Turkey. Turkey’s active involvement against the Assad regime has led to problematic relations with Iran and Russia. But its unconditional support for the Brotherhood in Egypt and President Morsi in particular has cost it in relations not only with the current Egyptian regime, but also with most of the Arab states that are fighting the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Expansion of Islamic Radicalism
Parallel to the weakening of the Brotherhood around the Arab world, newcomers who had lived in the underground and represented the pariahs of the Arab world have now surfaced on the Arab scene. The fundamentalists who went to fight the U.S. in Afghanistan and had originated from most of the Arab countries (mainly Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Yemen) came back as soon as they identified an opportunity to lead the opposition movement to the Alawite regime in Syria.
The Morsi administration opened the Sinai Peninsula to serve as a safe haven for thousands of combatants from all over the globe whose common denominator was to fight Shia influence and presence in the Middle East, North Africa, and the African Sahel, and to impose Sharia law where applicable.
Today, the growing infiltration and influence of Sunni fundamentalist Islamic movements led by al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the Middle East, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Sahel area in Africa has become preponderant. The expansion of Islamic radicalism came at the expense of old fundamentalist movements such as the Shia Hizbullah, which had sided with the “heretic” Alawite regime. Sunni preachers and politicians began to view “the Party of God” as “the Party of Satan.”
The Emergence of Old National Entities
The post-Arab Spring Middle East has seen the emergence of old national entities that had been ignored for decades, such as the Kurds in northern Syria and the Berbers in North Africa. The Arab world today is fragmenting into its components. Minorities that found a political refuge in pan-Arabism and secularism (Maronites, Alawis, Assyrians, Copts and others), which had enabled them to escape Arab persecution, are now being singled out by the Sunni majority. The Alawites, the ruling elite of Syria, had been considered part and parcel of the “Arab Nation.” Today their political and religious opponents call them “Nusayris” (a pejorative and an insulting appellation), signifying that they do not belong to the consensus of the Arab Nation.
The “Arab Spring” has created a new alignment of forces in the Middle East, shaped new alliances, consolidated existing ones, and re-invented old ones. The Middle East of today is a remnant of a political order almost a century old that has collapsed. Ideological trends and intellectual and political currents such as pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism, secularism, Ba’athism, and Arab socialism, that have built and destroyed alliances in the Arab world over the past seven decades, have faded away, only to pave the way for movements built on religious extremism as a political and social expression of the divisions that prevail today in the Arab world.
Democracies built on liberal values are still battling political Islam, trying to put a stop to its rampant advance and ultimately hoping to defeat it.
In this constellation, in which the Middle East is divided around the Syrian issue, two main axes are crystallizing and ultimately will fight one another for the supremacy of their values: the Iranian-led axis versus the emerging bloc led by Egypt, which is defining itself as the potential leader and protector of the moderate Arab world facing Iran and religious extremism. In this configuration, there will be a need to reshape alliances with the outside world according to new rules of partnership. This is particularly true for the U.S., Israel, and Turkey.