The Rise of Ortega-ismo

Latin America's savviest left-wing firebrand shakes his fist with one hand while accepting donors' cash with the other -- and he's about to consolidate power even further in a bold stroke of undemocratic electioneering.

Critics call him a regional bully, a paranoid isolationist, or a once-and-forever Sandinista. He's a former left-wing guerrilla who has been accused of taking bribes from drug gangs to finance city elections for his party. More recently, he was among the few to defend Muammar al-Qaddafi as the late Libyan dictator began to turn on his own people. And yet Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega -- about to coast to re-election for his third nonconsecutive term -- may just be the most savvy left-wing firebrand in Latin America.

On Nov. 6, Nicaraguans head to the polls, and there's little doubt that Ortega will win. The conventional wisdom in Managua is that Ortega will either win with a majority vote, or by any means necessary. Over the past few years, opposition parties have been blocked from ballots, critical journalists have been threatened, and independent election observers have been barred entry to the country.

But Ortega's re-election, however imperfect, isn't likely to provoke any serious conservative backlash. Ortega's unique ability to thread the needle between his socialist leanings -- and alliances with third-rail politicians like Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro -- and his lucrative partnerships with Western governments and business leaders makes him a formidable operator in the murky world of Latin American politics.

Despite many bitter memories of his first administration -- a period marred by chaotic events ranging from his own suspension of civil rights to the Iran-Contra Affair -- Ortega's current term, beginning in 2007, has been a relatively stable one for most Nicaraguans. Thanks to a robust police force and Ortega's complete control of the military, the people of Nicaragua have been spared the organized crime wave that has overwhelmed many of their Central American neighbors. Ortega managed to steer his nation through the global economic crisis, maintaining a steady rate of economic growth when recession was plaguing much of the world. Sure, Nicaragua is one of the poorest nations on Earth, but its current outlook is one of the best in the region -- the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported 4.5 percent GDP growth there last year. Despite his socialist background, Ortega has positioned himself as a pro-business president, endorsing so-called Free Zones: industrial areas throughout the country in which foreign and domestic companies can operate with incentives like total income tax exemption.

Of course, Ortega isn't doing this entirely out of a newly discovered respect for the free market. Want to do business in a Free Zone? You have to get approval -- from the president himself. Seeking to import or export foodstuffs? First Lady Rosario Murillo is the only one who can give the stamp of approval. "Ortega is pro-business, as long as they're his," says one Western diplomat based in Managua, speaking on condition of anonymity. Local business leaders also quietly explain that while foreign investment is welcome, the two most profitable industries are already taken: The state runs energy, while Carlos Slim's America Movil has telecommunications covered.

Ortega's balancing act is clear in other ways, too. Nicaragua is currently working within the parameters of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the IMF, all at once, alliances that keep him in good international standing and protect him from attack. But Ortega's cozy relations with what the Latin American left has traditionally considered imperialist debtmongers hasn't severely impaired his relationship with his chief benefactor, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Through the Venezuelan president's Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) program, Nicaragua receives a cash injection of about $500 million a year. Despite tensions between Venezuela and Nicaragua over what then-U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Robert Callahan called in a leaked 2010 cable "Ortega's constant need for operating cash to offset forfeited donor assistance," the money is still flowing.

In terms of managing his relationship with the United States, Ortega has maintained his anti-American Sandinista fist-waving in public, while quietly accepting U.S. financial assistance for education and health services. Speaking to a Russian reporter last year, Ortega said that the only thing preventing the United States from arming his opposition was the fact that "they don't have any military instrument to provoke a coup [here]." He has criticized President Barack Obama's promises that Washington would seek a fresh start with Latin America: "How can President Obama ask us to forget [our] past if it's so fresh and if it can be repeated, because we are seeing it now in Libya?"

Meanwhile, Nicaragua receives tens of millions of dollars in USAID assistance each year, and U.S. companies are free to bid for contracts there; about 100 already operate in Nicaragua. This year, the country is on track to experience the highest growth of apparel exports to the United States, a rate overtaking even China's.

The West hasn't completely turned a blind eye to Ortega's hypocrisies. After electoral fraud during the 2008 municipal elections, Nicaragua lost over $100 million in international assistance. The U.S. State Department noted that a 2010 regional election was tarnished by fraud, and $64 million in development aid through the Millennium Challenge Corporation was subsequently cut. "We remain concerned about apparent irregularities in the Nicaraguan electoral process," said State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland in a statement on Oct. 31.

In the eyes of experts, however, this condemnation doesn't go far enough. "Some democracy advocates in Washington are notably indifferent to Ortega's authoritarianism," says Michael Shifter of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank. "They don't want to play into the old Washington vs. Ortega narrative. They also recognize there no good options for the United States in this situation. That may be so, but it is still a serious mistake to refuse to call a clear violation of democratic norms for what it is." 

Within Nicaragua, sentiments vary over Ortega. While his approval rating has risen during his term -- to a little over 40 percent in 2011 -- he is largely seen as the only option. To run for a third term, Ortega used his influence in the Supreme Court to overturn a constitutional ban on acting presidents or multiple term-holders running for the office again. The overturning of the ban inspired outrage and some protests, and even some in Ortega's own camp were apparently concerned. In March, Vice President Jaime Morales Carazo declined to stay on the ballot, setting off speculation that he was resigning in protest. His replacement will be retired Gen. Omar Hallesleven, furthering fears that Ortega's relationship with the military might be too close for comfort and could bring harsher crackdowns than the relatively mild response to recent protests.

The Nicaraguan opposition is poorly equipped to take advantage of any slip-up on Ortega's part. In the run-up to the election, whispers have circulated about the possibility of the "unforeseeable" occurring (i.e., a coup), but it's not likely. The opposition is fragmented into four main parties, each weaker than the last. They have presented various lines of attack against Ortega, none that have stuck. Roger Guevara Mena, a candidate from the Alliance for the Republic party (APRE), argued in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that if Iran were to seek to attack the United States in any way, Ortega would be the picture of a willing helper -- an argument that may stir up fears in Washington but falls largely on deaf ears in Managua, where citizens know Ortega is more inclined to engage in heated rhetoric than war. Fabio Gadea Mantilla, the candidate from the center-right Liberal Independent Party (PLI) who enjoys 30 percent support, according to the latest CID-Gallup polls, is a journalist-turned-politician whose blandness and age (he turns 80 next week) have probably cost him too many votes. Other candidates have been plagued by corruption allegations or have simply been too weak to register with voters at all; there is simply no one with the political capacity to stand up against Ortega -- who now leads the pack with 48 percent.

Even Ortega's long-time political opponents are working on incremental change, rather than on dethroning the president. "We need democratic [and] positive pressure" on the administration, says Antonio Lacayo, who served as prime minister in the early 1990s in his mother-in-law Violeta Chamorro's anti-Sandinista government and is now a business leader in Managua. That, he says, is the only way to transform Ortega into a real pro-business president, one whose rhetoric matches reality.

It seems that the electorate in general simply doesn't want to rock the boat; and the business community seems happy, for the most part, just to be making money. "Ortega's effective co-optation of parts of Nicaragua's private sector has been politically astute, not only in undermining the opposition at home but in neutralizing Washington," says the Inter-American Dialogue's Shifter. The new president of the American Chamber of Commerce, Yali Molina Palacios, has been conducting damage control this year after several diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks insinuated that his predecessor was actively working against Ortega in 2009 and 2010. Molina Palacios claims that the Chamber officials were simply invited to meet with the opposition in order to discuss democratic balance in the country. "It wasn't a coup d'état or anything," says Molina Palacios. Although he believes democracy and legality is the only way forward, he is adamant that the Chamber of Commerce and its members "divorce ourselves from the politics and focus on development."

An Ortega victory on Nov. 6 will surely usher in a period of some unrest -- minor demonstrations, perhaps some congressional clamoring -- and investment uncertainty. But Ortega's clever balancing act seems to have everyone in Nicaragua tip-toeing along with him. And as long as he can keep the cash flow coming in from all sides, that's not likely to change.



The Islamist Bloc?

Just because you think you know one of the Arab World's new Islamists doesn't mean you know them all.

With uprisings stalled, for now, in Bahrain and Syria, it appears that North Africa's revolutionaries -- first in Tunisia, and then in Egypt and Libya -- have been the most successful of the Arab Spring. At the same time, despite early rumblings, revolution remains highly unlikely in Algeria and Morocco.

What these three more successful revolutions have in common besides geographic proximity is the presence of popular Islamist movements that now enjoy a once-in-an-epoch chance to govern. But "the Islamists," though largely perceived as monolithic in the West, are in fact quite different from one another. Whereas the leadership of Tunisia's Ennahda -- which took nearly 42 percent of the vote in Tunisia's first post-revolutionary elections last month -- has managed to incorporate both a French-style gender equality code and a liberal interpretation of sharia law into its platform, some Islamist hardliners within Libya's Transitional National Council (TNC) appear keen to establish polygamy as a means of social control. And while both these movements are committed to obliterating the remnants of the old regime, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is increasingly allied with a reconstituted military dictatorship.

Though close in terms of geography, the upheavals in these countries stem from disparate conditions and promise varying outcomes. Indeed, these states are dissimilar enough that a significant threat to their future is that the West may apply a cookie-cutter approach to all three. Four years ago, Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke observed in an article in Foreign Affairs, "U.S. policymaking has been handicapped by Washington's tendency to see the Muslim Brotherhood -- and the Islamist movement as a whole -- as a monolith." There is little to indicate that the present administration has manifested a new outlook. To the contrary, statements from influential policy circles have done little to challenge the notion that the Brotherhood, for example, is one movement with a unified transnational agenda.

To the contrary, in recent congressional testimony on the Brotherhood from Robert Satloff, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, there is a not-so-subtle statement about a coherent international agenda: "The Brotherhood is a profoundly political organization that seeks to reorder Egyptian (and broader Muslim) society in an Islamist fashion."

While this statement may be true in that it highlights a general ambition of Brotherhood franchises in all Arab countries, it is the distinctions, not the similarities, that stand to help the United States pinpoint the opportunities for engagement -- and the think tank does not appear to have devoted sufficient resources to identifying them.

In Libya, where the armed insurgency, now poised to gain political power, the new leadership contains veterans of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which, though now disbanded, was an ally of al Qaeda. Though the group's primary target in the nineties was the Qaddafi regime itself, statements by its former leaders, including Libyan rebel commander Abd al-Hakim Belhaj, indicate that the movement considers itself to be part of a broader international "jihad." He adopted the language of al Qaeda in referring to the United States as "crusaders." After the 1998 American missile strikes in retallion for the al Qaeda East African embassy bombings, the LIFG released a statement decrying the attacks and essentially calling for vengeance.

Meanwhile, the society around this emerging jihadi elite lacks experienced political activists who might provide a more constructive vision. The absence of organized, civic institutions in Libya is no guarantee that such groups won't eventually take shape -- but it is a clear opportunity for militants to dominate the marketplace of ideas for some time.

In Tunisia, October's election gave Ennahda a controlling plurality in the new parliament. Ennahda was a target of the ancien régime that nonetheless managed to survive and thrive in exile. Rachid el-Ghannouchi, the movement's leader, enjoyed freedom of movement and the opportunity to maintain and grow his political base from his adopted home in London. Meanwhile, Tunisian liberals who remained behind did not do enough to distance themselves from the regime, and have now paid the price at the polls. Ennahda is the best structured and most popular political institution in the country today.

Following its electoral victory, Ennahda will have an opportunity to use its new authority to influence the fabric of Tunisian Islamic culture. But unlike in Libya, the party will have to negotiate its cultural agenda with the entrenched legacy of secularism imposed by founding president Habib Bourguiba and his successor Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Consider the example of Turkey, where the ruling Islamist party is widely believed to have been tempered by the secularism of its antecedents. Tunisia under Bourguiba and Ben Ali came the closest in the Arab world to an Ataturk-style experiment of secular governance. Even the venerable al-Zaitounah Islamic seminary in Tunisia was instrumentalized by the regime and became, effectively, a university of comparative religion. The legacy of the regime's progressive cultural agenda will not vanish because its proponents are out of power.

In Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood movement evolved not in exile but in situ, the "mainstream" Islamists face challenges not only from secular parties but from the more extreme Salafists, whose regressive views would in all likelihood destroy the Egyptian economy. Whereas the Brotherhood for the past 25 years has been seriously engaged in reconciling Islamic legal tradition with the principles of modernity and consensual politics, Salafists have rejected notions of democracy and modernity as anti-Islamic "innovations." There are Salafists across North Africa and the Middle East, to be sure, including those in Tunisia, who, like in Egypt, have recently perpetrated acts of violence. But it is in Egypt that they have established enclaves in populous urban slums and appear to be most capable of mounting a sustained political campaign.

The Brotherhood has not lost its contempt for the Egyptian military elite, but it also understands that too hasty a move toward civilian rule is dangerous in a state whose civil society was gutted systematically under Hosni Mubarak. The movement is poised to finesse its ideological differences with the United States over Israel -- despite public pressure -- in order to maintain the flow of foreign aid, military aid, and tourism. Over the past 10 years, Brotherhood affiliates in Egypt and other countries, including Palestine itself, have raised the concept of a hudna, a temporary and renewable truce, as a means of provisional accommodation with the Jewish state.

Abd al-Mun'im Abu 'l-Futtuh, a senior Egyptian Brotherhood official who is running independently for the presidency of Egypt, has told al-Arabiya columnist Abdel Rahman Al-Rashed that he would not necessarily pursue the annulment of the Camp David Accords. In other contexts, he has indicated that the Saudi-backed "Arab Peace Initiative," could be a basis for the Brotherhood to enter talks with Israel.

As for Algeria, where a civil war claimed as many as 150,000 lives in the 1990s, the streets for now are silent. But there is little evidence to suggest that the immense popularity enjoyed by the radical Front for Islamic Salvation in the 1990s has waned since then. Nor has an exiled Islamist leadership emerged with a moderate outlook akin to Ghannouchi's Ennahda. Meanwhile, there is no serious liberal opposition to military rule inside the country -- while the jihadist Armed Islamic Group continues to strike violently, even in Algiers.

Morocco's Islamists are unique as well. A meaningful multi-party system has been in place in the country for a generation, and diverse political movements -- ranging in orientation from Islamism to socialism -- have achieved a measure of credibility. The democratic space has been gradually expanded since Mohammed VI's accession to the throne, a trend further advanced this summer by a new constitution. That document, though yet to be implemented, commits meaningful domestic authorities to an elected prime minister, including control over the ministries and the power to appoint regional governors. There is a relatively level playing field among parties in the political arena, and Islamists are necessarily disposed to look for liberals to help them find a place in any government. (The moderate Islamist Party for Justice and Development, PJD, is currently the third-largest parliamentary bloc, with 47 seats in a 325-member house. Europe's Thomas More Institute estimates that the PJD is unlikely to achieve more than a 10 percent bloc after the new elections.) Radical Islamists exist, but their chances of obtaining real power are negligible. Morocco's carefully fostered political diversity, together with the steady growth of civil society institutions, tempers and moderates the Islamist stream. The king, for his part, will maintain his role as the senior religious authority in the country under the new constitution.

In short, the West should avoid the mistake of approaching each country's Islamist phenomenon with one policy. There are powerful Islamists in Libya with whom direct political engagement may be futile. By contrast, there is an Islamist movement in Tunisia that could potentially serve as a bridge between the West and more extreme Islamist groups in other countries -- beginning with its Libyan neighbors. The Algerian regime, though a sworn enemy of Islamist groups, is not a friend to the region's freedom agenda, while the Egyptian Brotherhood, though ideologically anti-Western, may not be an enemy to America's security paradigm. Morocco, meanwhile, has demonstrated that an autocracy can strengthen civil society as well as moderate Islamists through a political process -- an example that could be applied to Egypt's military rulers and other regimes that will also need to adjust to shifting realities in the months and years ahead.