The political ideas competing for support in the Arab world

The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the socio-political collapse that has ensued have sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East. I felt them firsthand during a recent month-long sojourn in Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

Today, four main political ideas are battling for support in Arab nations. The outcome of this contest during the next three to five years is likely to determine the future of this strategically crucial region for a generation to come. These four ideas are:

1. Pan-Arab secular nationalism. This idea was dominant in the Arab world until it fell from favor in the wake of the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967. Open to both Muslim and Christian Arabs, it once came in three competing varieties: Egypt-based Nasserism, Iraq-based Baathism and Syria-based Baathism. Today, only the third form remains in power – and it has assumed an increasingly Syria-bound focus. But Pan-Arabic sentiments remain widespread, upheld by common media and cultural activities. The rise of (Persian, not Arab) Iran has stimulated some “Pan-Arabist” concern in many Arab publics. However, most people in Arab countries bordering Israel still consider Israel a much greater threat than Iran.

2. State-based secular nationalism. The “system” of Arab states we see today was largely created after World War I, and since then, these states have won significant loyalty from their citizens. Today, a Lebanese citizen generally feels Lebanese, a Bahraini feels Bahraini, and so on. Inside Iraq, the war-spurred collapse of the central state has led to sectarian bloodbaths. In other Arab countries, many citizens have responded by rallying around the idea of a functioning central state – even if it lacks many elements of democracy, but only so long as it can prevent any replication of the lethal chaos of Iraq.

3. Sunni Islamism. A large majority of Arabs are Sunni Muslims. Within the Arab world’s Sunni communities, many forms of Islamist activism have flourished – and only a tiny minority of them have adopted the nihilistic, global-scale violence of al-Qaida. By far, the broadest Sunni Islamist movement is the Muslim Brotherhood. In its birthplace in Egypt, today’s Muslim Brotherhood is a broad-based, nonviolent movement that has a quasi-legal political presence. (Pro-Muslim Brotherhood candidates won one-fifth of the seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections.) In Jordan, too, the Muslim Brotherhood is nonviolent and has a nearly legal political existence that’s tolerated by the country’s pro-U.S. ruler. In Syria, the local Muslim Brotherhood clashed very violently with the regime in the early 1980s; it has been harshly repressed there ever since.

In the Palestinian community, the local Muslim Brotherhood is better known as Hamas. In past years, Hamas used considerable violence against Israelis. But it won key parliamentary elections last year. Now it seeks to govern the Palestinian Authority in coalition with the secular nationalists of Fatah, and it has indicated an interest in peace talks with Israel, though still on tough terms. In all these societies, Sunni Islamist groups that are considerably more militant than the Muslim Brotherhood also exist, but they have far fewer adherents than the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates.

4. Shiite Islamism. The main Shiite political movements in the Arab world are Hezbollah in Lebanon and the array of Shiite parties in Iraq, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party. Historically excluded from power by the Sunnis, the Arab Shiites now feel empowered by Iran’s rise. But most also consider themselves strongly Arab, and they bridle at accusations that they’re a pro-Iranian fifth column in the Arab world.

In Iraq, the large-scale, often violent contest for political power between Shiite and Sunni movements has been well reported. Less well known is that there have also been several efforts to forge political bonds between the two groups – usually on a clearly “nationalist” and anti-U.S. basis.

Throughout the whole Arab world, the interactions among the four trends described above has been complex – and sometimes quite surprising. But four principles seem clear.

First, these ideas are generally not mutually exclusive. A Lebanese Shiite can feel both strongly pro-Hezbollah and strongly Lebanese. An Egyptian Sunni can feel Egyptian, pro-Muslim Brotherhood, and Arab.

Second, though Sunni Islamism and Shiite Islamism are mutually exclusive as affiliations, that does not prevent them from cooperating. Thus, the Sunni Islamists of Hamas have long had good working relations with Lebanese Hezbollah. And even in strife-torn Iraq, the Shiites of the Mahdi Army have reached out to help Sunni Islamists based in Fallujah.

Third, all these worldviews contain a strong pro-Palestinian component. Adherents of any might enter a tactical alliance with the U.S., but so long as Washington is seen as blocking the Palestinians’ hopes, such alliances will be hard to maintain.

And fourth, despite the strength of their convictions, the leaders of all of these movements have made some very pragmatic political choices.

How should those of us outside the region view these movements? It’s not for outsiders to decree that other political systems should ban all religion or sect-based political parties. (Such parties have long participated in democratic systems in Germany, India and Israel.) The more important task is to establish strong norms for the nonviolent resolution of conflicts both within and among nations. Within nations, the best way to do this is through democracy. Any party that commits to democratic principles and wins a mandate from the voters should be welcomed into the system.

Helena Cobban is a Friend in Washington for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The views expressed here are her own.

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