Pipes: “Islamists will not achieve a ME breakthrough”

by Daniel Pipes, The Washington Times

As Egypt’s much-anticipated moment of crisis arrived and popular rebellions shook governments across the Middle East, Iran stands as never before at the center of the region. Its Islamist rulers are within sight of dominating the region. But revolutions are hard to pull off and I predict that Islamists will not achieve a Middle East-wide breakthrough and Tehran will not emerge as the key powerbroker.

    George W. Bush had the right idea in 2003 in calling for democracy but he ruined this effort by demanding instant results. Barack Obama initially reverted to the failed old policy of making nice with tyrants; now he is myopically siding with the Islamists against Mr. Mubarak.

Some thoughts behind this conclusion:

An echo of the Iranian revolution: On reaching power in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sought to spread Islamist insurrection to other countries but failed almost everywhere. Three decades had to go by, it appears, before the self-immolation of a vendor in an obscure Tunisia town could light the conflagration that Khomeini aspired to and Iranian authorities still seek.

Part of a Middle Eastern cold war: The Middle East has for years been divided into two large blocs engaged in a regional cold war for influence. The Iranian-led resistance bloc includes Turkey, Syria, Gaza, and Qatar. The Saudi-led status quo bloc includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, the West Bank, Jordan, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf emirates. Note that Lebanon these very days is moving to resistance from status quo and that unrest is taking place only in status quo places.

Israel’s peculiar situation: Israeli leaders are staying mum and its near-irrelevance underlines Iranian centrality. While Israel has much to fear from Iranian gains, these simultaneously highlight the Jewish state as an island of stability and the West’s only reliable ally in the Middle East.

Lack of ideology: The sloganeering and conspiracy theories that dominate Middle Eastern discourse are largely absent from crowds gathered outside of government installations demanding an end to stagnation, arbitrariness, corruption, tyranny, and torture.

Military vs. mosque: Recent events confirm that the same two powers, the armed forces and the Islamists, dominate some 20 Middle Eastern countries: the military deploys raw power and Islamists offer a vision. Exceptions exist – a vibrant Left in Turkey, ethnic factions in Lebanon and Iraq, democracy in Israel, Islamist control in Iran – but this pattern widely holds.

Iraq: The most volatile country of the region, Iraq, has been conspicuously absent from the demonstrations because its population is not facing a decades-old autocracy.

A military putsch? Islamists wish to repeat their success in Iran by exploiting popular unrest to take power. Tunisia’s experience bears close examination for a pattern that may be repeated elsewhere. The military leadership there apparently concluded that its strongman, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had become too high maintenance – especially with his wife’s family’s flamboyant corruption – to maintain in power, so it ousted him and, for good measure, put out an international arrest warrant for his and his family’s arrest.

Gen. Omar Suleiman – Egypt’s fourth military ruler since 1952?
That done, nearly the entire remaining old guard remains in power, with the top military man, Chief of Staff Rachid Ammar, apparently having replaced Ben Ali as the country’s powerbroker. The old guard hopes that tweaking the system, granting more civil and political rights, will suffice for it to hold on to power. If this gambit succeeds, the seeming revolution of mid-January will end up as a mere coup d’état.

This scenario could be repeated elsewhere, especially in Egypt, where soldiers have dominated the government since 1952 and intend to maintain their power against the Muslim Brethren they have suppressed since 1954. Strongman Hosni Mubarak’s appointment of Omar Suleiman terminates the Mubarak family’s dynastic pretensions and raises the prospect of Mr. Mubarak resigning in favor of direct military rule.

More broadly, I bet on the more-continuity-than-change model that has emerged so far in Tunisia. Heavy-handed rule will lighten somewhat in Egypt and elsewhere but the militaries will remain the ultimate powerbrokers.

U.S. policy: The U.S. government has a vital role helping Middle Eastern states transit from tyranny to political participation without Islamists hijacking the process. George W. Bush had the right idea in 2003 in calling for democracy but he ruined this effort by demanding instant results. Barack Obama initially reverted to the failed old policy of making nice with tyrants; now he is myopically siding with the Islamists against Mr. Mubarak. He should emulate Bush but do a better job, understanding that democratization is a decades-long process that requires the inculcation of counter-intuitive ideas about elections, freedom of speech, and the rule of law.

Mr. Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, lived in Egypt for three years.

February 1, 2011 | 5 Comments »

Subscribe to Israpundit Daily Digest

Leave a Reply

5 Comments / 5 Comments

  1. Andrew writes:
    Also Pakistan, which is about to implode, has supposedly 100 nukes. Who knows where they are going to end up?

    Yamit writes:
    Muslim Brotherhood: ‘Prepare Egyptians for war with Israel’

    Just when we need a Harry Truman in the White House, we have a Jimmy Carter. Oy, veh!

    The Islamists have two years of Imam Obama to do what they can before he is booted out of office as the most unfortunate and dangerous experiment in US history.

  2. The comments I’ve seen about Egypt so far, make the place look like the “Mexican standoff” gunfight in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. We’ll see how it all turns out.

    Concerning the “Regional Cold War” Pipes talks about, he has identified a trend that has developed in the past few years. Let me just walk through “regional cold wars” there in, say, the past century.

    1) Pre-WWI.

    There were two dominant local powers — on paper, at least: Iran and Turkey. Iran was divided into British and Russian spheres; and the Turks were pawns to the British (and, to a lesser extent, to their French allies).

    2) Between the Wars.

    The two great powers in the region were the Turks, who had become isolationist, and the British, who controlled the Iranian oil fields, Egypt, Arabia and all points in-between. Russian influence was minimal

    3) The Cold War Era, to 1979.

    Israel became the regional bogeyman, opposed by everyone except the US. The Americans took over the British and Turkish interests, one after another, including Israel. Russian influence expanded greatly, and overtook the Americans in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and South Yemen. Israel was attacked militarily by its Russian-backed neighbors; and the US, by default, had to side with it.

    4) 1979 to 1994.

    Iran appeared as a regional player, and the Russians had to quit the area. Formerly Russian-sponsored regimes such as Egypt and the PLO, kowtowed to the Americans and made peace with Israel. Israel now became a political lever between pro-American regimes and Iranian-backed Islamists. Sadaam Hussein tried to oppose both, and became a regional pariah. Al Qaeda was quietly acting on the periphery, supported by the US against regimes sponsored by the reeling Russians. The US, meanwhile, established an unprecedented direct military presence in the area, rivaling or exceeding that of the British before them.

    5) 1994 to present.

    Iranian influence has expanded, at the expense of American. They have replaced the Russians in their influence. Sadaam Hussein was squashed like a bug, and Al Qaeda has replaced him as the champion of Sunni Arab independence (and as a pariah). This is the “Cold War” Pipes referred to.

    Historically, Iran has not been a major player in Israeli history. Israel’s main connections have been with Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus and Greece. Of these, the Egyptians have had the most influence. The fact that Syria, Lebanon and now Turkey have aligned themselves with Iran, and that Iranian-backed Hamas is supported by half of Egyptians, suggests that Iranian influence may expand into Egypt. Al Qaeda appears to have little appeal in Egypt, as elsewhere in the Near East.

    Iran’s big troubles are at home, where the same economic pressures that sparked the Tunisian uprising may topple the Islamist government. If and when that happens, the Turks will likely take up the “resistance” torch; and we will see Ezekiel 38.

  3. “We have entered the most dangerous period I think the world have ever experienced.”

    Agreed. Also Pakistan, which is about to implode, has supposedly 100 nukes. Who knows where they are going to end up?

  4. It’s the economy stupid!

    The underlying trigger to this populous revolt is the rising prices of food staples. This trend will get worse in the coming months if not years, it’s a global manifestation, fueled mostly by inflation generated by economies in the West. Europe is also undergoing civil and political unrest and there is no reason to suggest it will not continue and even intensify in 2011/12. America as well will not be immune just delayed.

    Egypt and most other Arab countries economies are too weak to subsidize even basic commodities sufficiently to pacify the growing if not exploding populations of millions more abject poor.

    The Egyptian army will need to be extremely repressive but starving people may overcome their fears when they believe they have nothing to lose.

    Enter Moslem Brotherhood at that point and even the Army will be hard-pressed to maintain quiet and stability. This will happen even if delayed because the coming global depression accompanied with high inflation, high interest rates, rising prices of all commodities., will sap the abilities of all third world countries and many first world countries to cope minimally.

    Egypt is only the tip the iceberg of what to expect on a global scale. Trade wars, currency wars might= Real Hot Wars.

    We have entered the most dangerous period I think the world have ever experienced.