Cracking down on moderate Islamists


Me and detained MB blogger AbdelRahman Ayyesh in Cairo, October 2007

 I learned yesterday that three leading young Muslim Brotherhood bloggers , including AbdelRahman Ayyesh (pictured above), Ahmed Abu Khalil and Magdi Sa'ad, had been arrested at the Cairo airport and then transferred to state security facilities.  Ayyesh and Saad were both important parts of the youth MB bloggers movement which was pushing the organization towards greater internal transparency and more moderate, politically engaged positions within Egyptian politics.  Their detention is deeply troubling... but all too typical of the recent trends in an Egyptian regime consumed by questions about the transition of power from Hosni Mubarak and by its largely failed efforts to broker a Palestinian national unity government. 

 The detention of the three MB bloggers is part of a wider crackdown which has directly targeted the most moderate and pragmatic figures within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.  That ongoing policy escalated dramatically with the arrest of several members of the MB's Guidance Council.  The arrested figures including Abdel Monem Abou al-Fattouh, a leading moderate and pragmatic figure within the Egyptian MB, on what appear to be trumped up charges related to his alleged activities with the Global Muslim Brotherhood Organization (about which I'm planning to write a longer piece soon). Abou el-Fattouh remains in prison, where his health is reportedly deteriorating.  

 This crackdown on the moderate elements of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood almost seems calculated to demoralize reformists and drive the MB towards more radical positions.  Amr Choukbi, a leading Egyptian analyst of Islamist movements, notes today that Abou el-Fattouh -- a true pragmatist and reformist -- faces a difficult position attempting to open up a largely conservative and closed MB organization, which is made even worse by such political crackdowns against the advocates of political moderation. Khalil el-Anani, another leading Egyptian analyst of Islamist movements, wrote an article the other day laying out the potential consequences:

Firstly, the stepped up crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood could increase the polarization within the Egyptian scene, which is already boiling over other many political, economic and social factors.

Secondly, the political and religious isolation of the Muslim Brotherhood could contribute to the emergence of either more superficial or stricter religious discourse.

Thirdly, the increased suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood could force some of the group’s grassroots to turn on their leaders and stage violent protests or call for civil disobedience.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the arrest of the group’s leading reformers, led by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, is tantamount to the execution of Sayyid Qutb in mid 1960s of the last century and its far-reaching repercussions on the Muslim Brotherhood’s young generation and the other young religious enthusiasts at the time.

It is enough to look at the Muslim Brotherhood discussion boards and blogs to find out the extent of resentment and tension among the Brotherhood grassroots after the arrest of Aboul Fotouh, and their appeals to the group’s leaders to move and to take firm positions against the regime.

Fourth, the arrest of the group’s reformists and moderates could throw the group into intolerance and conservatism. This could benefit the regime temporarily, but it could adversely affect the society on the long run.

Fifth, the isolation of the Muslim Brotherhood could contribute to the emergence of radical religious movements seeking to fill the religious and political gap between the state and the society. 

Is that what the Egyptian government wants?  Does that serve American foreign policy interests?  Or would such interests be better served by the evolution of a more moderate, pragmatic and reformist Muslim Brotherhood participating in the political system? Perhaps such matters would make for a useful topic of conversation during Hosni Mubarak's reported August visit to Washington DC. 

Marc Lynch

Tough times for the Awakenings -- crisis or opportunity?

 Like most people who follow Iraq, I've been watching the mounting tensions surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence with some concern.   I don't think that we're seeing the "great unravelling" quite yet, nor that we're yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

 The arrest of a leading Awakenings figure by Iraqi Security Forces which led to a highly-publicized military standoff a few weeks ago is only one instance of a wider pattern.  Tensions surrounding that arrest were exacerbated by an inflammatory blizzard of statements by Maliki and others warning that the Awakenings had been infilitrated by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  A series of attacks by unknown groups have added to the tension.  It all adds up to a general sense of apprehension, with members of the Awakenings worried about their future and many others worried that the security situation may be on the brink.

 The situation is extremely murky, and it's hard to really know anything with confidence.  What I've been seeing in the Iraqi and Arab media, and hearing from the people I've spoken with, is a wide range of competing interpretations and arguments over everything from the identity of the attackers (al-Qaeda? rival Awakenings groups? Shi'a militias looking to stir things up?) to the intentions of the Iraqi government (eliminate the Awakenings?  weed out the 'bad elements' within them? force the U.S. to take sides, and test the U.S. implementation of the SOFA?).  The high level of uncertainty and confusion is itself a significant point -- the impact of fear and uncertainty on strategic calculations should never be underestimated.

 Given all that uncertainty, it would be unwise to offer a confident assessment of what's really going on.  But the emerging crisis surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence do both seem to be primarily driven by the continuing refusal of Maliki and the Iraqi government to make meaningful political accommodations and their decision to move against at least some of the Awakenings groups at a convenient moment.  

 The official moves against the Awakenings look like salami tactics, divide and rule rather than a full-scale assault. Maliki, as in the past, seems quite happy to work with parts of the Anbar Awakenings (talk of a political deal with Ahmed Abu Risha is in the air again) even as he moves against Awakenings elsewhere.  Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are.  They are likely gambling that this fragmentation creates such intense coordination problems that they can take out a few of their most dangerous potential enemies here and there without triggering a widespread Sunni uprising.  Watching the reaction of the various Awakenings thus far -- as some protested angrily but others cheered -- suggests that they are right.  It's a dangerous game, though.  The question would be whether there is some tipping point, at which a large number of uncoordinated and self-interested small groups suddenly switch sides (as arguably happened in the other direction in the spring of 2007).

 It would not take a revolt en masse for a change in the status of the Awakenings to have an effect on security.  In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, Salah al-Mutlaq warned that the government's failure to deliver on its promises of security and civil jobs to the Awakenings and the arrest of a number of Awakenings leaders were spreading fear and uncertainty through their ranks. Members who aren't getting paid, see their leaders targeted, and see diminishing prospects of future payoffs could begin to fade away. They could stop performing their local security functions, allowing violent groups easier access to areas which had been off-limits for the last year or two.   Or some could return to violent action in an individual capacity -- and even if only 10% went that route, that could put 10,000 hardened fighters back into play (in addition to people recently released from the prisons, another issue which factors in here).

 The crackdown on the Awakenings has regional implications as well, particularly with the ever-skeptical Saudis who have generally supported the Awakenings movements.  The Arab press has taken careful note of their reversal of fortunes, which Adel al-Bayati in al-Quds al-Arabi calls Maliki's coup against the Awakenings.  Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (which usually reflects official Saudi thinking), complains bitterly today that recent events have made his warnings from last August about the coming betrayal of the Awakenings come true.  The Awakenings were not bearing arms against the Iraqi state, argues Homayed, but rather were protecting the Iraqi state against al-Qaeda and assisting its stabilization ahead of the American withdrawal. But, he warns, narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences. 

 This reflects a theme which extends beyond the Saudi sphere. Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accommodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings.  The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the "true Shia sectarianism" of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq.  

 I'm obviously worried about all of this.  I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due.  But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action. 

 That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence.  It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken.  Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress.  President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011.    Maliki and everyone need to take deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't.