Is the Arab Spring still an appropriate moniker for describing the series of uprisings that started with the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and then spread eastward to engulf Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen? Or given how the region has evolved over the past couple of years, would a more accurate label be the Islamic Spring?
Prior to the overthrow of Egypt's president Mohamed Morsi, whose roots were in the Muslim Brotherhood, the trend line looked pretty clear. Islamic-flavored governments had sprouted in Tunisia and Egypt, and there had been an alarming rise of extremist Islamic groups in the civil conflicts in Syria and Iraq. But the recent violent purges of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt should cause a reassessment of whether the emergence of Islamic leadership in the region is an intermediate stage of a process that will ultimately return to a more secular brand of politics, or whether this will be a permanent legacy of the Arab Spring. This question isn't trivial, as the political fortunes of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and the interests of the United States, hang in the balance.
A window onto the question of whether it will be political Islam or secular nationalism that will emerge strengthened from the current regional instability is provided by examining the complex relationship between secular and religious identities in the Middle East. In the political psyche of countries with strong national identities, like Egypt, Islamic identity and national identity are two sides of the same coin. While wrapped in very different symbols and ideologies, secular and religious identities both are receptacles for, and get stirred by, nationalist goals and grievances. The identity which achieves primacy in the political consciousness of a particular individual or group is likely to be the one perceived as the most instrumental in solving political (and social) problems, not necessarily the one with the deepest ideological or historical roots.
Let’s look at the historical relationship between secular and religious identities in the Middle East in this light, starting with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1920s, and culminating with the Iranian revolution in 1979. In both of these countries, Islamic identity gained political currency, not as a repudiation of nationalism, but as a more effective vehicle for delivering on nationalism's promises.
In Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s it was the inability of secular nationalist leaders to deliver the country from the vice-grip of British colonialist control that stirred the Islamic political identity of Egyptian youth, and transformed the Muslim Brotherhood from a fringe to a more mainstream movement. Inspired by the anticolonialist rhetoric of Islamic leaders, both secular and religious-minded youth abandoned the nationalist Wafd party to join the Muslim Brotherhood. And in Iran in 1979, individuals who were ardent secular nationalists donned Islamic garb and supported the Islamic Revolution and its leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. For them, Islam became a more potent outlet for nationalist ambitions than the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had lost political legitimacy. This tilt towards political Islam by Iranians normally predisposed to be secular tells us that the revolution wasn't a repudiation of secular nationalism, but rather an alternative vehicle for expressing it.
So what does this retrospective view mean for the future of Egypt’s national identity? It means that Islamic politics is likely to continue to be a viable part of the political mix because of, not in spite of, Egypt’s strong national identity. For the followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, the popularity of the organization doesn’t merely stem from its ability to tap into religious fervor, but also from its deftness in tapping into Egypt's national narrative and its political aspirations. Despite the terrorist labels Egypt’s current military leaders apply to followers of the Brotherhood, one shouldn’t forget that Islamic identity isn’t a negation of nationalism, but rather a different embodiment of it. For this reason, the Egyptian military, unable to completely quash the Brotherhood, would be wise to eventually create a pathway back into the political system for the Islamic organization.
The political dynamics in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, countries with weak national identities, however, are completely different. In these countries, Islamic and national identities aren’t two sides of the same coin, but rather polar opposites of one another. In the absence of strong national identities and communities, Islamic groups fill the political vacuum. But in contrast to Egypt, where national and Islamic identities are mutually reinforcing, Islamic identities in these weak states don’t strengthen the national fabric; they tear at it.
Some have suggested that one way out of the current conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon is the devolution of existing states into more viable Shi'ite, Sunni, and Christian enclaves. But the emergence of rump states built on sectarian religious identities is unlikely, as the current conflicts along sectarian lines are symptomatic of crumbling states and illegitimate political structures, not evidence of a crystallization of new and durable political communities. Sectarian religious identities may represent a pathway into conflict, but they don't necessarily provide a roadmap out.
Predictions about the formation of states built on sectarian religious identities also ignore the tug of ethnic and nationalist identities that may form a solider foundation for political community. A tilt towards these types of secular identities could be reinforced by the geopolitics of the region. If Syria, Lebanon and Iraq do start to splinter on sectarian lines, the threat of possible exploitation by Iran and Turkey could be a stimulant for some kind of revived Arab nationalism. As we saw with Egypt and Iran, identity shifts can occur in response to the need to generate power. The rise of non-Arab Iran and Turkey as regional powers, juxtaposed with the weakening of states like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, might just be that imperative. The specter of this could be the jolt required to push sectarian identities once again beneath the surface in favor of a more powerful, unifying nationalist identity.
So the outlook for political Islam in the region is likely to be mixed. Paradoxically, in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood is being brutally suppressed, the prospects for an eventual role for Islamists are reasonably strong. The only question is whether that will be played from the underground opposition or as part of a new government. The Egyptian military will hopefully pull back from the brink before it is too late, keeping in mind that the challenges from the Brotherhood revolve around issues of legitimate governance and leadership, not Egypt’s national identity. This is in stark contrast to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, where current battles are being fought for national identity.
Washington lacks the leverage to stem any of these conflicts. But if its goals are stabilization of Egypt and prevention of further advances by Islamic elements in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, then it must take care not to unwittingly sully the credentials of secular-nationalist elites in these countries. For this reason, despite the political pressure in Washington for more muscular responses to the situations in Syria and Egypt, at this point the Obama administration is correct in its decision to tread lightly.
Ross Harrison is on the faculty of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he teaches graduate-level courses in strategy. He also teaches Middle East politics at the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of Strategic Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign Policy and Business Professionals (Potomac Books: 2013).
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