Islamists after revolutions and relationship with United States

12 - May - 2013

When the events of the Arab Spring first unfolded and unfavorable regimes began to topple, feelings of enthusiasm and a sense of empowerment were unmistakable.  The people took to the streets in celebration. Young and old, men and women, stood side by side, singing, chanting, waving their flags. Posters held high “long live Egypt,” and the “people have spoken.” Children feeling the momentum were pictured with flags painted on their cheeks.

At the time when idealizing and romanticizing the Arab Spring was the dominant narrative for the masses, neighboring governments and western analysts worried about the Islamists filling in the vacuum.

Fear of the Islamists “hijacking” the Arab Spring moved from the ‘worst case scenario’ to an unconcealed reality. One by one, secular governments were turned on their head and those who were long on the other side of power, and pushed underground, suddenly became the masters of the very secular systems they long denounced.

The Islamist political party of Tunisia, Ennahda, gained 89 of the 217 assembly seats. In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) won 107 seats in the 395 member parliament, while the independent party Istiqlal came at a distance second with less than half the seats captured by the PJD.

But the biggest blow for seculars worried about the ‘rise of Islamists’ is without a doubt the elections in Egypt which brought to power a Muslim Brotherhood figure. Mohammed Mursi was elected the country’s fifth president enchanting his supporters while leaving many others greatly concerned and suspicious of his ‘religious agenda.’

However, and despite long-held fears and assumptions about the destructive consequences that would arise if an Islamist came to power, very little of these concerns actually materialized. This is particularly the case when it comes to the foreign policies of Arab Spring countries, and to some degree, even in their domestic policies.

The Islamists:

It is true that Islamists are pressing to move their societies into a more conservative realm, but these changes remain on a limited scale and confronting considerable resistance from various groups. The hijab ban may have been lifted in Tunisia, but alcohol continues to be sold and consumed, in spite of Muslim hardliners who find this offensive enough to warrant an attack.

In Egypt, it has been declared that President Mursi’s intentions are no doubt a “strict enforcement of Sharia and the recreation of the Caliphate.”  This statement by Former US Senate foreign policy analyst James Jatras is a prime example of how bias, fear and a lack of information are preventing an accurate assessment of recent developments.

More often, various Islamist groups tend to be lumped together in one category by mainstream media and westerner observers. Al Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda, and Sulifists are all referred to as “Islamists,” despite key differences among them. In fact, differences exist within far right groups and sometimes within the organization itself such as the divide between ‘young’ and ‘old’ streams of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

In Tunisia, fundamental ideological differences exist within Salafists movements. In a recent Foreign Policy article, Scholar Monica Marks identified two main currents within the Salfist movement: Salafiyya Almiyya, and Salafiyya Jihadiyya.
Followers of Salafiyya Almiyya believe that political activism is pointless and a sign of buying into corrupt worldly systems. Their goal is to establish a Caliphate, and impose Shria law. Most Salafiyya Almiyya prefer to keep to themselves. They focus their lives on following the sacred text and trying to copy the Prophet’s way of living. Therefore, these individuals don’t seek to be part of the political system but prefer to have as little to do with it as possible. On the other hand, Jihadi Salafist followers believe the best approach to transform Tunisia from a corrupt government to an Islamic Caliphate, is to preach and make ‘dawa,’ and directly challenging the government.

Other more “radical” groups such as Al Qaida, seeks to accomplish change by all means necessary including resorting to violence. These types of organizations view toppling what they regard as “corrupt and secular” governments as an obligations of every devoted Muslims. 
Outside observers often focus on these extremist Islamists who commit violence while waving the banner of Islam, as a reason for their concern about the Arab Spring. However, the “radicals” are not the ones who ran in the elections, and won victories. Because doing so, would have required them to go against everything they preach. The Islamsits in power today are politicians first, and not much different from their secular counterparts. They don’t wish to abolish secular institutions and laws. After all, it was through these secular systems that enabled them to finally gain influence.

Neither is the agenda of the Islamists particularly threatening. Once in power, the PJD in Morocco did not seek to impose Sharia law. Instead, it sought to adopt safe issues, like fighting corruption and inequality, and vowing to cooperate with authorities in fighting terrorism.
 Similarly, Tunisia’s Ennhada declared its intent to work towards greater democracy, human rights and even a free market economy. To assure skeptics that they don’t plan to impose an Islamic agenda despite running and winning based on that – Ennhada declared that it has no intention of introducing Sharia law or other Islamic concepts.

In Egypt, President Mursi promised to promote women’s right, extend equal protection to the country’s non-Muslim citizens and improve the economy. These promises are not exclusively Islamist, but frequently adopted by secular politicians worldwide in order to extract popular support.
The basic question then is how do the agendas of the Islamists in power today differ from their secular predecessors? The answer is: not much. The Islamists who were willing to go through the established system, partake in secular processes, and use western models for campaigning including social media, understand what it takes to gain power and how to retain it.

The Western education obtained by these Islamist, their connections to top western universities, Washington’s influential think-tanks and elites facilitated their raise to power.  This exposure provided the Islamistis with a realistic and practical experience, far from mere ideologies. These individuals understand that to be part of the game, one must play by the roles of the world’s only superpower.

Political Islamists understand that standing on the other side demanding participation, is vastly different from actually being in power and having to somehow implement these idealistic beliefs. More often than not, what the public demands is not feasible, and may not be in the best interest of the country or the individual in charge. A review of Egypt’s policies before and after Mursi’s raise to power indicates that Egypt’s before and after the election of a Muslim Brotherhood leader, continues to follow a practical and rational approach and not an ideological one, and that the much of the concerns regarding President Mursi’s radical ‘Islamic agenda’ are without merit.

Case Study: Egypt

Egyptian-US Relations:

Since the 1970’s, Egypt and the US have enjoyed strong relations. When Anwar Al Sadat took power, he promptly turned his back on the Soviets, asking their military advisors to leave the country. Al Sadat extended a hand to the Americas, solidifying their new alliance in one hand, while asking for $250 million in aid in the other. Egypt was fully embraced by the US after signing the Camp David Accords, ending its conflict with Israel in a 1979 peace treaty. The aid package continues to be of vital importance to Egypt and helped cement the relationship between the two countries throughout the years.

This month, the Obama administration was in the midst of handing over $450 million to Egypt, but the transaction was blocked by Republican Kay Granger, chairman of the House committee.  Egypt’s aid which totals 1.5 billion annually is divided into two portions; $250 million in the form of economic aid and the rest is extended in military aid.

This is not the first time that an American administration faced resistant from Congress over distribution of promised aid to Cairo. In fact, it is near certain that the amount will eventually be approved. But the political maneuvers are important nonetheless, as they highlight US policy makers’ suspicion of Egypt which greatly increased after the election of an Islamist as president. Frequent hostile remarks by members of Congress, are politically motivated and aim to advance the public image of politicians who wish to come across as projecting strengthen internationally. But at the end of the road, US national security policies are often not shaped by the public, but the other way around.  Perhaps with the exception of Israel, US policy is largely pragmatic and top US policymakers understand that preserving friendly relations with Egypt is crucial advancing US interests in the region.

When Mubarak first confronted the wave of mass protests at the wake of the Arab Spring, the US was reluctant to quickly abandon the regime. The Americans were in no mood to jeopardize a stable and reliable partnership with a strategically important ally for a movement that may or may not succeed in toppling the old order.  The Americans were also conscious of the message it was sending to other long-time allies in the region who would read any swift US support for the protestors as an indicator that they too would one day become dispensable.

It was clear that the US and western leaders were being cautious. Their response was slow and indeed very telling. The initial days provided a true test that could be used to measure American self-proclaimed commitment to democracy.  Washington policymakers have long waved the ‘you must reform’ stick to criticize friends and foes across the globe, and particularly in the region.

To be sure, democracy promotion for years has been identified as a core interest for the US and a cornerstone of its national security strategy. Former US President George W Bush publicly stated that one of main reasons for going into Iraq was to bring democracy into the country.  In his second inauguration address January 20, 2005, President Bush stressed the importance of democracy and human rights, “the concerted effort of free nations to promote democracy is a prelude to our enemies’ defeat,”  Bush declared.

The subsequent administration of US President Barack Obama continued to emphasize the US’s commitment to democracy. The 2012 National Security Strategy stated, “As a new generation across the Middle East and North Africa demands their universal rights, we are supporting political and economic reform and deepening partnerships to ensure regional security.”

US and the Egyptian Arab Spring:

Yet when the people took the street to protest what they considered autocratic regimes, the US did not run to the defense of the opposition. The US answered those pressing for democratic change, in a largely subdued manner, refusing to call for regime change in Egypt. The US was careful not to alienate the opposition without burning any bridges with long-standing regimes.

Up until a month before the forced resignation of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, President Obama’s tone remained neutral. In an interview conducted January 27th, 2011, the American president was keen on highlighting the intimate nature of Washington’s relationship with Mubarak. He praises him for upholding the peace treaty with Israel and recalled that “President Mubarak has been very helpful on tough issues in the Middle East.” President Obama refrained from calling for Mubarak’s removal, preferring to adopt the role of an evenhanded spectator “Violence is not the answer in solving the problems, so the government needs to be careful about not resorting to violence and the people on the street need to be careful about not resorting to violence,” President Obama said. 

But as events rapidly developed, it soon became clear that the voices of the streets could not be tamed. It was only then, that the US reordered its cards. The Americans and their European allies calculated that now was a good time to follow the momentum before they are left behind, and began to sharpen their tone in support of the revolutions.

In a speech last year, President Obama praised the ‘heroism’ of Mohamed Bouaziz who is largely credited for triggered the Tunisian apprising. “That vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country. Hundreds of people took to the street. Then thousands…. they refused to go home…until a dictator of more than two decade finally left power.”

When the “dictator” of Egypt left power, the US government congratulated   the people on a job well done. It accepted their decision to elect Mursi as president and President Obama underscored that “the United States will continue to support Egypt’s transition to democracy and stand by the Egyptian people as they fulfill the promise of their revolution.”

The statement aimed at striking a cord with the Arab masses, and at the same time, enhances the US reputation as promoter of democracy. But what is certain is that the US blessed changes in the Middle East knowing that those countries experiencing a regime change, will not produce regimes, and that no profound change will occur to destabilize the system.

If there was any doubt that the Arab Spring would produce anti-western leaders with leverage and popular backing to conduct dramatic maneuvers such as sever ties with Israel, create a distance with the US and extend an olive branch to Iran, then the US would have praised the “heroism” of those taking part.

If there was any genuine concern that these scenarios are remotely possible, then the US would not have supported the protest movements or allowed controversial figures to gain power. Just like democracy promotion did not apply in the case of the Hamas elections, and also when the CIA’s engineered the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, the US would have surely prevented democracy to take its course and put an end to the Arab Spring if the results were expected to work against its interests.
For their part, western media continues to advance a similar agenda to their governments, echoing both the great success of the Arab Spring, while exposing biases and fear of Islamists.

Reflecting on the events of the Arab Spring, Time magazine recalled how the Tunisians “gave courage to myriad Egyptian dissident groups.”  In their book, The Battle for the Arab Spring,  Reuters, correspondent Lin Noueihed and her colleague favorably reflected on the events of the Arab Spring. They argue that the revolutions have fundamentally changed the people of the region where they’ll never again accept defeat, fear or corruption.

Writing for, The Atlantic, James Fallows suggested that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were so significant, that they may have inspired a wave of protests in China.

Leaders and opponents of the Arab Spring received particularly positive portrayal in western media. These individuals often described as pro-western, were allocated special attention, and were the focus of numerous ‘special reports’ documenting the ‘changes at the grassroots level.’
The Star of the Egyptian revolution was Wael Ghonim, whose employer, Google, allowed him to take time off to participate in the street protests that ended up toppling the Mubarak regime. Mr. Ghonim’s utilization of social media was particularly to the liking of western media which highlighted his important role in organizing Egyptians into “peaceful” protests.

A Yemeni human rights activist Tawakul Karman, was hailed by westerners for her bravery. In the spirit of the Arab Spring, Mrs. Karman took part in a sit-in, along with hundreds of students from Sana’a University. Criticism from the Yemeni government and condemnation from Clerics, earned her high western praise. She eventually received the ultimate honor when she was officially given the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize that recognized her contribution to the “non-violence struggle for the safety of women.”

In welcoming Mrs. Karman, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “The United States supports a democratic transition in Yemen and the rights of the people of Yemen, men and women to choose their own leaders and futures,” to which Mrs. Karman enthusiastically responded, “thank you America.”

At the same time that the US was publically blessing Egyptians democracy, the Republican controlled House of Representative voiced their concerns loud and clear. The fear is for the “Muslim Brotherhood to turn Egypt into an Islamic state,” reported the congressional newspaper, the Hill.  Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen certainly shared these fears, adding “I am further concerned that certain extremist elements inside Egypt will manipulate the current situation for nefarious ends,” she said.

Yet a review of the actions of Mursi since coming into power doesn’t warrant any of these concerns. In fact, many of the people in power today in Egypt have friendly relations with the US.  The Egyptian defense team that took power last August is made up of officials who have trained in the US and are known to the Pentagon. President Mursi himself obtained a PhD in engineering from the US.

US military has established contacts with newly elected Egyptian Defense Minister General Abdul Fattah Al-Sissi more than 30 years ago. Al-Sissi took an infantry training course at Fort Beginning, Georgia in 1981. Not only has Al-Sissi maintained links to the US military but he was also keen on fostering relationships with US intelligent agencies. Last year, he was even granted a meeting with a President Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan.

Islamists or not, any Egyptian leadership understand the importance of maintaining the support of the world’s only superpower. US backing can and does open many doors. It allows for foreign loans to pour in, funds military purchases, secures a spot in the international community, and supports Egypt’s regional leadership role.
President Mursi has everything to gain from maintaining friendly relations with the US and the GCC and everything to lose if that relationship crumbles. Losing Egypt to the ‘other side’ would be an unfortunate blow for the US and the GCC, but doesn’t constitute a serious threat to their survival. However, an end of the backing of the GCC would be a severe financial blow for Egypt which it simply can’t afford. While forsaking the alliance with the US, could easily lead to its destruction.

For his reason, US-Egyptian relations continue to prosper under Mursi’s leadership despite the ongoing criticism by hardliners in the US.  Following the attacks on the US embassy in Cairo, American media and neocons seized the opportunity and quickly condemn Musi’s “slow reaction.” They were apparently offended with Mursi decision to direct his embassy staff in Washington to take legal action against the films’ producers before criticizing the assault itself.

But these criticisms are ill founded. Mr. Mursi is not a US politician, but an Arab leader, and the president of Egypt. His initial comments should understandably be directed towards addressing Muslim grievances. Had he devoted his initial statements to condemning the embassy attacks, rather than addressing the streets anger at the film’s aim to insult Islam, his image as the leader of an important and most populous country in the region would have been greatly undermined.

A few days later, Mursi did end up issuing a statement condemning the attacks, “I call on everyone.. to not violate Egyptian law.. to not assault embassies”  President Mursi continued, “It is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad,” . However, this apparently did little to satisfy his western critics.

The cynical expectations of how Islamists would react while in power have thus far been proven wrong. The Muslim Brotherhood’s response was calm and appropriate. They called on followers to express their anger not by instigating violence but by standing in silence outside mosques. Mohmoud Hussein, Secretary General of the Brotherhood was keen to distance his organization from the attacks, and reaffirm the all-important US ally, “This is the work of about 20 people not hundreds of protesters.”  He said, “it’s proof that some groups in the US and Egypt want sabotage American-Egyptian relations.”

Israel-Egyptian relations:

The attacks and Mursi’s subsequent remarks came after President Obama said on Egypt, “I don’t think we would consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy. They are a new government that is trying to find its way.”   President Obama’s statements don’t accurately represent his administration’s view of Egypt. The Obama administration does regard Egypt today as a reliable ally.  Simply put, had the US had any doubt that President Mursi would steer course away from Washington and towards Iran, Mursi’ decent into power would have never materialized.

Once again, it is important to distinguish between statements directed at a domestic audience and separating those from concrete policies. President Obama’s remarks were not intended for his allies in region, but made for a domestic audience, and with the upcoming presidential election in mind.

No statement would be complete without reassuring the Israeli lobbyist and Jewish voters that Israel’s security is a top issue. President Obama made it clear that US-Egyptian future relations depended on President Mursi’s pledge to continue the legacy of Mubarak. Egypt-US relations will largely depend on their “respond to maintaining the peace treaty with Israel," said President Obama. 
American and Israeli press was quick to disapprove of President Mursi’s United Nations address because he criticized Israel and demanded international commitment to solving the Palestinian issue. Western observers were displeased that President Mursi didn’t legitimize the Israeli state by acknowledging its “right to exist.”

It is clear however that the US and Israel’s top policy makers were certain that President Mursi will do nothing less than honor the peace with Israel, and cooperate behind closed doors on security issues when need arises.
In the same UN speech, President Mursi vowed that all activities in the Sinai Peninsula to drive out Islamist militants will be conducted in compliance with the 1979 peace treaty. The former Muslim Brotherhood member made it clear that Cairo has no intention to “threaten anyone”  in reference to Israel.

In fact, as soon as President Mursi took power, he publically confirmed Egypt’s intention to uphold the peace with Israel. He even went a step further and wrote a personal message to Israeli President Shimon Peres, “I am looking forward to exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East peace process back to its right track in order to achieve security and stability for all peoples of the region, including the Israeli people,” the message read.

Thus far, Islamist-led Egypt continues to value its relationship with the US and there are no indications of this changing any time in the near future. As far as Israel is concerned, President Mursi has publically and privately made it clear that Egypt doesn’t seek an ideological war with Israel and that business will continue as usual. The last concern is the fear of a new axis that would link Egypt to Iran.  In the mind of top US policy makers, there was never a serious concern that President Mursi would move towards an alliance with Tehran, otherwise, the process would have taken a very different turn. The US was sure that both Mursi and runner up Ahmed Shafik would have followed a near identical policy when it comes to core foreign policy issues.

Egypt-Iran relations:

Even before Mursi swore oath as Egypt’s first elected president, alarms were raised by skeptics who warned that he will step outside of the ‘Sunni front’ and move into the arms of Iran. Of course Tehran hailing the election of Mursi as an “Islamic awakening,”  only ignited these fears. When it was announced that President Mursi will attend the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Iran, the fears were suddenly legitimized. The gesture was indeed significant given that it was the first time an Egyptian leader set food in Tehran since the mid-1970. The relationship between the two countries was fractured following Camp David accords and Egypt’s welcoming of the Shah.

Yet the skeptics were once again proven wrong. President Mursi’s address made it diplomatically clear that “new Egypt” is not prepared to risk angering the Americans in exchange for warming relations with Iran. Even though the summit witnessed the representation of 150 nations, which helped rebuke the myth of Iranian isolation, it nonetheless made it clear that the Arab Spring did not fundamentally lead to a change in the regional order.

President Mursi no doubt disappointed his hosts. While Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech was vehemently anti-American, the Egyptian president was keen on not adopting the same attacks on the US. He also undermined Khamenei by refusing to accept the “Islamic Awakening” term to describe the uprising, insisting on referring to them as “the Arab Spring.”

But the biggest blow for the Iranians was President Mursi’ blatant attacks on the Syrian regime, an important Iranian ally. It seemed as if the Egyptian leader went out of his way to appear zealous and firm on the Syrian question. He legitimized the uprising in Syria by viewing it as “an extension of the Arab Spring.” He denounced the Assad regime, calling it “oppressive and illegitimate.”  A message that was no doubt appreciated by the US and ‘moderate’ forces in the region, and completely contradictory to what proponents expected. Mursi’s action once again indicates the pragmatism of the Islamists, and proof that as far as international relations are concerned, business under the Islamists is proceeding as usual. 


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  2. “Salafists raid Tunisian hotel bar for serving alcohol,” BBC Sept 4 2012. Link
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  7. Former President George W. Bush said “[We] are committed to a strategic goal of a free Iraq that is democratic, that can govern itself, defend itself and sustain itself.” President Bush meets with Senior U.S. Defense Officials on Iraq, December 13, 2006. Link
  8. George W. Bush Second Inaugural Address, Thursday, January 20, 2005. Link
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  18. Yemeni Nobel Prize winner welcomed by Clinton, AFP, Link, Oct 28, 2011.
  19. “Kucinich: Ros-Lehtinen captured the mood of Congress on Egypt,” the Hill, January 29, 2011. Link
  20. Ibd
  21. “US unsurprised by Egypt’s army reshuffle”, BBC, August 14, 2012 . Link
  22. “Egypt’s new top general has US ties” Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2012. Link
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  25. “Obama on Egypt: we don’t “consider them an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.” Real Clear Politics September 13, 2012. Link
  26. Ibd
  27. “Mohammed Morsi vows to respect Egypt-Israeli peace treaty,” The Telegraph August 28 2012. Link
  28. “Israel: Egypt’s President Mohammed Mursi pledges new peace efforts,” The Washington Post August 1, 2012. Link
  29. “Egypt’s Mursi to visit Iran end of August: state agency,” Reuters, August 19, 2012. Link
  30. Egypt condemns ‘oppressive’ Syria sparking walkout IBTimes UK August 30, 2012. Link

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