Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Islamists are Coming

But democracy and piety are not always contradictions
Foreign Policy Nov. 7, 2011

Two decades ago, a portly Tunisian with a salt-and-pepper beard sat in my Georgetown living room and tried to convince me that blending tenets from Islam and democracy could create viable governments in the Middle East. The merger was inevitable -- and good for the West too, he insisted.

"Islam embraces diversity and pluralism as well as cultural coexistence," Rachid el-Ghannouchi, a former philosophy professor and leader of Tunisia's Islamist opposition, told me.

It was a hard sell back then. Most Islamist movements -- from Egypt's Islamic Group (Gamaa Islamiyya) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to Lebanon's Hezbollah -- had a sorry, unproductive, or violent record.

Today, however, Ghannouchi actually has a chance to prove his point. In Tunisia's first free election last month -- also the first poll of the Arab Spring -- his al-Nahda party beat 100 other parties to win 40 percent of the vote and the right to lead a government.

Islam is emerging as an equally potent force as democracy in defining the new order in the Middle East. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is also expected to do well in elections this month. Libya's interim leader recently called for laws compliant with Islamic sharia, including lifting restrictions on polygamy. Movements with various Islamic flavors are part of oppositions in Syria, Yemen, and beyond.

"The Islamists are coming, the Islamists are coming!" is the new refrain across Western capitals. In some quarters, the Islamists' electoral prospects have even unleashed a bit of wistfulness for the old secular dictators. But democratic politics and piety are not necessarily contradictions, even for the nonobservant.

No question, Islamist parties are more assertive and ambitious than ever. And yes, the next decade will be far more traumatic for both insiders and outsiders than the last one, though often due more to economic challenges than Islamist politics. Pity the inheritors of the Arab world's broken political and economic systems, whoever they are.

Yet the Islamic revival has evolved significantly since the 1970s. Islamist politics entered the mainstream after Israel's rout of the Arabs in the 1973 war and Iran's 1979 revolution, which overthrew 2,500 years of dynastic rule. The 1980s witnessed the rise of extremism and mass violence, first among Shiites and later Sunnis. But in the 1990s, the trend began to shift from the bullet to the ballot -- or a combination -- with Islamist parties running within political systems, not just trying to sabotage them from the outside. And in the early 21st century, especially as militancy took growing tolls on their societies, Mideast populations began challenging both autocrats and extremism in creative new ways. The Arab uprisings, which were launched by unprecedented displays of peaceful civil disobedience in the world's most volatile region, mark a fifth phase.

Political Islam is today defined by an increasingly wide spectrum. And no one vision dominates. Indeed, the Islamists' diversity -- when the strictly observant believe in only one true path to God -- is unprecedented.

The nonviolent parties fall in three main pivots on the spectrum. At one end, the Justice and Development parties (of the same name) in Turkey and Morocco reject the Islamist label -- and recognize Israel's right to exist, a barometer of coexistence or pluralism in practice. Tunisia's al-Nahda has the potential to be a model if it follows through in forming a coalition with two secular parties and honoring women's rights.

When I met with Ghannouchi, he spoke at length about aqlanah, which translates as "realism" or "logical reasoning." Aqlanah, he told me, is dynamic and constantly evolving -- and Muslims needed to better balance sacred texts and human realities.

In the middle of the spectrum are groups like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which has sired 86 branches across the Islamic world since the 1920s and renounced violence in the 1970s. It had 88 members of parliament during Hosni Mubarak's last government. Its positions on women and Coptic Christians in politics and Israel as a neighbor are archaic; so is the undemocratic selection of its own leadership. But those policies have also alienated its own members.

The factors that generated the uprisings -- the young bulge, literacy, and the tools of technology -- have spawned diverse ways of thinking among younger Islamists, too. Ibrahim Houdaiby's grandfather and great-grandfather were both supreme leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. He became its best-known blogger in 2005. But Ibrahim also advocated pragmatism, internal democracy, less secrecy, religious tolerance, and women's rights.

"I had lots of debates with my grandfather," he told me. "One was over which comes first: freedom or sharia. My grandfather said sharia leads to freedom. My argument came from the Quran, which says, 'Let there be no compulsion in religion.' I said freedom comes first." Ibrahim eventually resigned from the Brotherhood over practical political differences.

The wild cards at the far end of the spectrum are the Salafis, ultraconservative radicals inspired by Saudi Arabia's puritan Wahhabi sect. They are often a hybrid. In Egypt, the Islamic Group started to renounce violence in the late 1990s as part of a deal with the government to release its imprisoned members. Some have even crusaded against jihadi tactics they once endorsed. Their willingness to share power, however, is not convincing because of rigid positions on everything from Islamic law and women to Israel.

Abboud al-Zomor, for example, provided the bullets to kill Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Imprisoned for three decades, he was released after Mubarak's ouster. "There is no longer any need for me to use violence against those who gave us our freedom and allowed us to be part of political life," he told the New York Times this year. But Zomor's goal of creating a strict religious state has not changed -- and it does not inspire confidence about the movement's ability to compromise.

The new spectrum reflects the key bottom line: Over the next decade, the most dynamic debate will be among the diverse Islamists, not between Islamist and secular parties. These political tensions will play out as they vie to define Islam's role in new constitutions -- and then implement it in daily life.

These trends should not come as a surprise: Many Muslims share conservative values even as they push for freedoms. The right to human dignity, Muslims believe, is God-given -- a view shared by Thomas Jefferson and engraved on the walls of his memorial. The values of their religion are a starting point for all other aspects of life.

"Without Islam, we will not have any real progress," reflected Diaa Rashwan, an expert on political Islam at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "When Western countries built their own progress, they didn't go out of their epistemological or cultural history. Japan is still living in the culture of the samurai, but in a modern way. The Chinese are still living the traditions created by Confucianism."

"So why," he mused, "do we have to go out of our history?"

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Hip Hop Rhythm of Arab Revolt

The Wall Street Journal
July 23, 2011

In November 2010, a young Tunisian rapper who called himself El General posted a song on his Facebook page and YouTube. He had no alternative.

The government of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had virtually banned hip-hop. Its musicians were not on government-approved playlists for state-controlled television or radio. They were rarely able to get permits to perform in public. And most were barred from recording CDs.

El General—whose real name is Hamada Ben Amor—had no resources of his own. At age 21, he faced the problems of many young Tunisians. He was without reliable work and still living at home with his parents. For Tunisia's rappers, the only regular gigs were on the Internet. So he recorded the song underground.

"I had two friends," he later explained. "One filmed my songs on a small video camera, and the other edited the videos and put them up on YouTube." It raged against the problems of poverty, unemployment, hunger and injustice—and boldly blamed them all on Mr. Ben Ali.

The four-minute video was haunting and raw. It showed the young rapper sauntering through a dark, sewage-strewn alley on his way to a makeshift studio with graffiti spray-painted on the wall. He beat out the song in front of an old-fashioned mike, with no one else in sight, and then ambled back down the alley into the night.

His face was never in the light, his identity remained unclear. Going public was too dangerous.

El General's song was an instant sensation. Its outrage resonated, especially among the young. It broke through the climate of fear in a country where no politician had dared to criticize a president in power for almost a quarter-century. His incendiary rap registered hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and across other social networks. The amateur video was even picked up by Al Jazeera, the 24-hour Arabic news channel.

A few weeks after the song began circulating, a government inspector demanded a bribe from Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Sidi Bouzid. She confiscated his produce and his scales. When he could find no recourse, he set himself on fire over the same problems that echoed through the plaintive rap lyrics.

As protests over Mr. Bouazizi's plight spread across the country, El General's rap became the rallying cry. Verses were sung by tens of thousands of Tunisians in street demonstrations demanding the president's ouster.

For El General, the words proved personally prophetic. As the Jasmine Revolution gained momentum, he wrote another song entitled "Tunisia Our Country." Its blunt condemnation bordered on treason. At 5 a.m. on a cold winter day, government security forces showed up at his door in Sfax, a former commercial center on the Mediterranean coast.

"Some 30 plainclothes policemen came to our house and took him away without ever telling us where to," his brother told news agencies. "When we asked why they were arresting him, they said, 'He knows why.' "

The young rapper was taken to a prison in Tunis. He was put in solitary confinement and repeatedly interrogated about possible political connections, according to news reports at the time. But in the breathtaking speed of the first Arab revolt, the revolutionary anthem had already made him famous. Demonstrators began demanding his release as well as the president's resignation.

"They asked me, 'Please stop singing about the president and his family, and then we'll release you,' " he later recounted to Time magazine.

The government let him go after three days, as a concession to the demonstrators. Little known before his protest song, El General had become almost as famous as Mr. Bouazizi. "That's when I realized that my act was really huge, and really dangerous, because the police got so many calls about my incarceration," he said. "Once I stopped being scared, I had this huge pride."

Two weeks after the Tunisian president abruptly fled, El General performed in public for the first time. Wearing the Tunisian flag draped around his shoulders, he belted out his anthem for a crowd of thousands.

His appearance brought the Jasmine Revolution full circle. Mannoubia Bouazizi, the mother of the young street vendor whose self-immolation launched the uprising, had traveled to Tunis to share the stage. The two young men had transformed political activism in Tunisia—and in turn the entire Arab world.

El General's song became the anthem of revolutions across the region. It was sung in street demonstrations from mighty Egypt to tiny Bahrain. Through Facebook, he had many requests to join the protesters at Cairo's Liberation Square. He had no passport, so he opted to work instead on a rap ode to Arab revolution.

"Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Morocco," the chorus went, "all must be liberated too."

* * *

Across the Islamic world, hip-hop has now created an alternative subculture among the young. Rap is its voice in a 4/4 beat. Muslim rap is replete with beeps, bops and beatboxes, although without the materialism, misogyny, vulgarity and "gangsta" violence of much Western hip-hop.

The messages of Muslim rappers are just as bold and blunt, however, and the names they take are defiant. DAM and Rapperz were early Palestinian groups. Kla$h is a Saudi. Afrock and Da Sole are Tunisian rappers. Desert Heat came from the United Arab Emirates. Disso R Die and ThuGz Team are Kuwaitis. Rappers DJ Outlaw and Chillin came from little Bahrain. Hich Kas—which means "nobody" in Farsi—was among the first of many Iranian rappers. Boyz Got No Brain are Indonesian rappers. MC Kash is an Indian rapper in Kashmir.

"I have a lot of rage, but I express it with a microphone, not a weapon," the lead singer of DAM, Tamer Nafar, explained to a Jewish publication in 2007—in Hebrew. The DAM trio has repeatedly condemned extremism and violence—by both sides—even as their songs try to explain the context in which suicide bombing takes place. "Every village now has hip hop," Mr. Nafar told me. "Hip-hop is our CNN."

Embracing rap does not mean that young Muslims are mimicking the West or secular ways. Many rappers are, in fact, surprisingly observant. Islamic hip-hop is now a genre, like Christian hip-hop and Gospel rock. Morocco's sultry Soultana—whose sneakers sport pink shoelaces—often takes a break if the muezzin issues the call to prayer while she is performing.

"Hip-hop is now the battleground for Muslims," she told me, citing the young people across the Muslim world who are fighting back against both autocrats and religious extremists. As Soultana raps in one of her songs:

"They said we are terrorists because we are Muslims,

Because one criminal did it wrong in the name of Islam.

Our Islam is peace, love, respect.

We are the generation calling for peace."

During a performance in Rabat, three men told Soultana that female singers were haram, or forbidden, to perform in front of men. She simply countered, "I read the Koran." Then she went on singing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Peaceful protests, not suicide bombs


By Robin Wright

Feb. 11, 2011 -- Arab world’s old authoritarian order is being shattered, whatever happens next.

Egypt accounts for roughly one-quarter of the Arab world’s 300 million people, so the transition of political power in Cairo will likely have widespread effect across the 22-nation bloc. From Casablanca to Kuwait, Tripoli to Damascus, Egypt’s transition will affect every other Arab country in some way—small or large, direct or indirect.

In a region made famous for its suicide bombings, the use of civil disobedience to peacefully force Hosni Mubarak from the presidency changes the political dynamics, not only in Egypt.

In the end, Mubarak and his loyalists could no longer isolate or discredit the burgeoning opposition without enormous costs, and potentially not at all. The movement began to take its demonstrations beyond Liberation Square to parliament, state television and the presidential palace. Protests also spread throughout the country. And labor began to strike in sympathy with the opposition.

Already crippled economically over the past two weeks, Egypt could not afford to see strikes spread and the country paralyzed. The opposition could not be contained, politically or physically.

Despite the breathless pace of change in both Egypt and Tunisia—all since Dec. 17, a mere eight weeks—the political drama is likely to play out for a very long time.

So far, the model for Egypt is more Turkey than Iran. Ironically, Mubarak resigned on Feb. 11—the same day as the Iranian revolution. But Egypt’s uprising has taken a decidedly different form.

Now the hard part begins—organizing elections, amending or rewriting the constitution, developing new political parties, and getting the economy going again. The economy will be a key in ensuring a healthy transition for Egypt.

Robin Wright is a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Mubarak now controls only his exit

POLITICO January 31, 2011

One way or another, the Mubarak dynasty is toast.

After three decades of absolute power, the only thing President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt now fully controls is when he goes. And the octogenarian may not be able to dictate the terms or timing of his exit for much longer — almost certainly not until the presidential elections due in September.

Global giddiness after a remarkable week of “people power” protests is likely to give way this week to anxious realities for Egypt, the region and its allies.

Three factors will influence what happens next.

First, Egypt literally may not have the luxury of waiting for a gradual or gentle transition. Cairo’s stock market began to drop even before the “Day of Rage” protests Friday forced the Egyptian leader to finally address his nation — with desperate-sounding platitudes. The sense of an uncertain future is likely to further undermine Egypt’s economy, as well as the weak reforms by Mubarak’s regime, which have already been hurt by the global economic crisis. The weekend looting will not help.

Tourists — a critical source of income in Egypt — are fleeing the turmoil. International airlines have canceled flights indefinitely. And forget badly needed foreign investment — governments are pulling out diplomats and dispatching special flights to withdraw their stranded citizens.

So the economic pressure is now on. In the end, that’s the key factor that often topples regimes.

Second, the entire region is now at stake. The abrupt ousting of a regime in Tunisia, a small country of 10 million people between Algeria and Libya, is one thing. In Egypt, the fall of a regime is quite another matter.

With 80 million people living along the fertile Nile River, Egypt accounts for roughly one-quarter of the total population of the 22 Arab countries. It is the Arab political and foreign policy trendsetter. Despite the nation’s pervasive malaise for more than a decade, it is still considered the intellectual center.

Arabs themselves want Egypt’s future resolved.

Third, the world cannot afford to let Egypt fester without risking a dangerous political vacuum, even worse turmoil and deepening resentment of foreign governments — especially the United States. Egyptian protesters are already challenging Washington’s role.

“USA: We hate your hypocrisy,” warned a big, handmade poster waved by a protester over the weekend.

Cairo has certainly been an essential ally. It played a pivotal role in the Arab-Israeli peace process, initiated under former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. It has taken a tough stand against extremism — though, in fairness, largely for the regime’s own survival because its draconian practices helped fuel militancy. But both national security priorities — shared by most of the world — are in jeopardy as long as Egypt is unstable and its future is uncertain.


The big challenge now for Egypt and Tunisia — and potentially others — is to fill the political vacuum with credible parties and talented people after decades of outlawing, isolating, exiling and even executing dissidents. This is a long-haul challenge, not something that can happen overnight. Three forces will play defining roles.

The first is the emerging body politic, and its role is far from over.

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New movements in Egypt and Tunisia and the bubbling unrest elsewhere in the Arab world are still evolving. Their goals, so far largely nonideological, are justice and job creation.

And they are shaped by the forces of modernization: Education is moving people beyond goals of daily subsistence. Demographics have created a dominant youth population, aware of change elsewhere in the world. Since the mid-1990s, satellite channels have provided a source of information outside the state’s control. And technology has offered a means of communicating and mobilizing.

Second are Muslim conservatives — not to be confused with extremists or radicals. In much of the Arab world, Islam today is less an end goal than a source of identity. Even as growing numbers of Muslims reject extremism, they are turning to their faith as a pillar to cling to during the tornado of political change — a role religion has played in many other upheavals in the past century.

Third is the military, which is made up of the people in many Arab countries. In Tunisia, the army leadership took the decision to fulfill its mandate — defending the nation, not the regime. During its initial deployment, Egypt’s military did, too. In fact, several soldiers were captured for chanting or singing along with protesters.

For all the euphoria about people power facing down dictatorial regimes, Egypt and Tunisia face even tougher challenges now because their populations have rising expectations and believe they deserve tangible improvements in their lives. Any regime — old or new — will find it almost impossible to deliver benefits soon enough.

Robin Wright, who has covered the Middle East since 1973, is a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.