The Islamists Are Coming

But democracy and piety aren't always contradictions.

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?"



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.