Thursday, December 8, 2011

Revenge of the Sunnis

What the Arab Spring is really about.
By Edward Luttwak
The last decade has been marked by the rise of the Shiites in the Middle East. Through the bullet and the ballot box, Shiite parties have risen to power from Baghdad to Beirut -- thereby extending Iran's reach into the heart of the Arab world. Sunni rulers have viewed with much anxiety the new "Shiite crescent" that extends from Iran all the way to Lebanon.
But as a popular -- and now military uprising -- in Syria becomes more powerful, the Shiite ascendancy is coming to an end. With every day that passes, President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power seems to weaken: The United Nations assessed on Nov. 1 that Syria had entered a state of civil war and the country's economy is projected to contract by a disastrous 12 percent to 20 percent this year. And now, the regional Sunni powers are hoping to exploit the turmoil to launch a counteroffensive that could reverse their losses.
Shiite empowerment in the Middle East began with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which had the perfectly predictable effect of strengthening Iran -- not only its ruling theocracy as such, but also its hegemony over "Twelver" Shiites across the Arab world. In Iraq, most importantly, the Shiites have long outnumbered the Sunnis, but were marginalized and persecuted by the Ottoman Empire and then by all subsequent Arab regimes, down to the initially secular Saddam Hussein, who became a Sunni paladin after launching his war against Iran in 1980. Today by contrast, the U.S.-imposed democratic system virtually guarantees a Shiite-dominated government, with a natural affinity for the fellow Shiites of Iran.
In Lebanon, likewise, the Shiites have long been more numerous than the Christians or the Sunnis, but they were altogether weaker politically -- indeed, for most of Lebanon's history, they were more ignored than opposed. Today, by contrast, it is the emphatically Shiite movement Hezbollah -- which modestly calls itself the "Party of God" -- that is by far the most powerful party in the current Lebanese government, and its armed militia is stronger than the national army.
Then there is the very special case of Syria, where the Sunni majority is subjected by a nominally secular regime run by extremely heretical Muslims, chiefly backed by non-Muslim minorities both Christian and Druze.
The ruling Assad family's capture of Syria has been a strategic boon to Iran due to its readiness to act as if they were fellow Shiites -- thereby connecting Iran, Iraq, and southern Lebanon into a contiguous "Shiite crescent," in the words of an alarmed Jordanian King Abdullah II. That is richly ironic, because President Bashar al-Assad and his inner core of followers who dominate the security forces are Nusayris, only re-branded in the 1920s as Alawites ("followers of Ali") to better claim a Muslim identity as Shiites ("partisans" of Ali), but whose very un-Islamic doctrines would expose them to murderous repression in Iran -- just ask a member of the heterodox Bahai community.
For ultra-Sunni Saudi Arabia, as well as its smaller neighbors -- Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates -- the Shiite advance has been most unwelcome. Religious differences have greatly widened in recent years: Shiite devotions, particularly in Iran, have increasingly focused on the hidden Twelfth Imam, whose actively implored world-ending return leaves Muhammad himself by the wayside. Equally, Shiite pilgrimages to the Hassan and Hussein shrines in Iraq -- idolatrous for rigorous Sunnis -- inherently compete with the Mecca pilgrimage.
Least important doctrinally, but perhaps most important in reality, has been the greater visibility of practices and rituals that are suspect or even disgusting to Sunnis. These include the dubious "temporary marriage," invented by Iran's clerics, who use it liberally in lieu of prostitution; the rhythmic Shiite prayer drill that seems un-Islamic and downright menacing to Sunnis, and more extreme rituals, such as Ashura. They are far from new, but it is only now that many Sunnis are exposed to the spectacle of processions of self-flagellators over pavements slippery with their blood and of Shiite mothers proudly cutting their babies' foreheads with razor-blades to bleed them in memory of the martyrdom of Hassan and Hussein.
It is, however, the crescent's potential to extend southward that has transformed it into a strategic threat to Saudi Arabia and Sunni neighbors. Shiites outnumber Sunnis not only in Bahrain and Kuwait, but also -- and most importantly -- in Saudi Arabia's oil-producing Eastern Province, where the money comes from. New protests have broken out in the region in recent weeks, resulting in the deaths of several protesters.
From the Saudi point of view, the damage inflicted by the United States in 2003 by destroying Saddam's military strength was compounded by the failure to defend deposed President Hosni Mubarak's government in Cairo. The Egyptian regime had other merits for the Al Saud family, including a respectable rate of economic growth, which is now a receding memory. Its chief virtue in Saudi eyes, however, was Mubarak's systematic opposition to Iran and its allies, and even the Shiites as such. Egypt's post-Mubarak rulers are hardly likely to embrace either Iran or its doctrine -- the country is solidly Sunni -- but there is no guarantee that they will emulate Mubarak's very active anti-Iran policy, which was strengthened by pragmatic cooperation with Israel. Indeed, the first act of the post-Mubarak interim regime was to call for the restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran -- even if to no great effect so far.
But having greatly damaged the Sunni front by sweeping away Mubarak, the "Arab Spring" is now greatly helping it by weakening the Assad regime in Syria. The rulers of Qatar and of Saudi Arabia are untroubled by the obvious contradictions in their policy toward this year's Arab revolts: They are defending Bahrain's ruling family against the majority Shiite population while loudly criticizing and sanctioning the Assad regime for oppressing its own majority Sunni population. And they are demanding democratic rule in Syria while accepting none of it at home.
Qatar's Al Jazeera television channels have, from the start, sided with Assad's Sunni Arab enemies. But Qatari policy has followed the more cautious Saudi lead. The Saudi and Qatari rulers only demanded action by the Arab League after months of bloody repression in Syria -- when the death toll exceeded 3,500 -- and even then delayed their actions in light of Assad's "promise" to stop using force against his own population.
That was a trap, of course. Assad was left with only two choices: Stop using force, lose control, and at best flee the country; or else suppress the opposition with lethal force, losing Arab League support and provoking increasingly severe sanctions. The latter option was Assad's preference, and the Saudi and Qatari rulers duly reacted by calling for Arab and international sanctions, while probably supplying money to Syrian resisters who happen to be almost entirely Sunni.
It is obvious that the Gulf monarchies of absolute rulers are not in the fight for the sake of a future Syrian democracy. For Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, the purpose of overthrowing Assad is to break the "Shiite crescent": bringing Damascus under Sunni rule, repudiating its alliance with Iran, and cutting off Hezbollah from its logistic base in Syria, thereby allowing Lebanon's Sunnis to regain power along with their Christian allies. A further aim is to provide a refuge for Iraq's outnumbered Sunnis, just across the border. A broader goal to be achieved by denying Tehran its only Arab ally is to reduce Iran's acceptability by Arab populations everywhere.
Achieving these goals would add up to a winning "knight's move," restoring the Sunni ascendancy after setbacks in recent years. And as Assad does not have the mettle of his father -- who silenced his own Islamist opponents by massacre -- it is easy enough to predict the victor. Democracy may not be the winner, but the Sunnis certainly will be.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 07/12/2011
-Edward Luttwak is author of The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire and an international consultant

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

America's Second Chance and the Arab Spring

The United States has been screwing up the Middle East for 60 years. Obama has a brief window to get it right.
By Kenneth M. Pollack
                                                   Elections in Egypt
Egyptians went to the polls en masse on Nov. 28 and Nov. 29 to vote in the closest thing that any of them has ever seen to real elections. Although the final word is not in -- either regarding the results or the integrity of the elections -- early reports suggest that the vote was mostly fair and free.
But Egypt is still a long way from stable, functional democracy. As Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon have demonstrated again and again, elections do not equal democracy.  Egypt's Islamists -- who appear to have garnered as much as 65 percent of the vote -- will dominate the new parliament regardless of the role they play in the new Egyptian government, and we do not yet know whether they will wield that power responsibly. Egypt's armed forces remain the most powerful force in the country by far, and they have shown a Hamlet-like ambivalence -- demonstrating an ardent desire to surrender power to a new civilian government and a similar determination to preserve their own prerogatives from the era of Egyptian autocracy.
The strong showing of Salafi movements, which appear to have captured approximately a quarter of votes, was the surprise of this round of elections. These Sunni extremists are growing in number and, if the system begins to break down, might try to seize control of the government like modern-day Bolsheviks. Some of Egypt's most popular leaders are dangerous demagogues who could plunge the country into all manner of problems. Democracy is a long road, with many perilous intersections, and Egypt has barely started on its way. What's more, Egypt will likely require considerable political, military, and even economic support from the United States and the rest of the world if it is to make that critical, dangerous, transition successfully.
What is true for Egypt today is even truer for the wider Middle East. The events that began in Tunisia in December 2010 -- and spread to Egypt and then Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Syria, and beyond -- shook the political, social, and intellectual foundations of the Middle East. The tremors can still be felt, and no one is quite certain when the aftershocks will end, or when another wave of popular unrest might occur. In some countries, like Egypt and Tunisia, and perhaps Morocco, Libya and Jordan, a move toward real democracy has started. That is difficult enough, but the situation is even more dire in countries such as Syria and Bahrain, where old elites are fighting the popular forces of change with all of their might.
Between these countries lies a dozen other Arab states, where both the unrest and the government responses have been more limited. However, there is no reason to believe that they will remain untouched by the forces of the great Arab Awakening forever, or even for very long. Change is coming to the Middle East, but the ultimate result of that change is impossible to discern.
Unfortunately, the United States does not have the luxury of waiting around to see how things play out and then make sense of what has occurred. Although the shock of the initial events of the Arab Spring has ebbed, many of the miseries that gave rise to it persist and remain compelling motives for many people across the region. For that reason, the storm of unrest that spread from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf may have subsided, at least in some parts of the region, but its story has just begun.
Whether we like it or not, the changes sweeping the Middle East will affect America's vital national interests as well. We hate to admit it, but we must face the fact that our economy -- and the economy of the wider world, with which we are inextricably intertwined -- is addicted to oil. And the price of oil, and thus the welfare of our economy and that of the rest of the world, is deeply affected by what happens in the Middle East.
We may want to turn inward and concentrate on setting our own house aright -- to focus on nation-building at home, as President Barack Obama put it -- but we cannot afford to ignore the events of the Middle East. The Middle East is not Las Vegas: what happens there, does not stay there.
Elements of a New American Middle East Strategy
In the wake of the earth-shaking events of the past year, and to secure U.S. interests in that part of the world, what U.S. policymakers must do is easily said, but hard to do. Indeed, Americans have determinedly resisted doing it for decades. But now that the events of 2011 have revealed the world as it truly is, and not as Americans have tried to insist that it was, perhaps the United States can finally commit itself to doing them.
To this end, the United States must embrace a long-term commitment to help the countries of the Middle East pursue a process of political, economic, and social transformation. This process should grow from within, rather than be imposed from without. It should reflect the values, traditions, history, and aspirations of the people of the region themselves, not a Western best guess at them. And it should also recognize that change and stability are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing -- and ultimately mutually essential. This will be a difficult course to pursue, but it is ultimately the only good path to follow.
Defining a New Narrative
While it is unquestionably true that the people of the Middle East want to secure their own futures, it is also true that they want to know that the United States supports them and will help them when they ask for assistance. Many suspect that the United States still backs the region's moribund and repressive regimes. For all of them, the United States must articulate and consistently hew to a new strategy that supports transformation in the Middle East.
But the message is equally important for the extant rulers themselves. Some hope simply to withstand the popular furor and, when passions have cooled, go back to the way things were. If they are going to be brought around to making more meaningful change, they need to understand that this is unacceptable to Washington and will place them squarely at odds with what will become a new, long-term American strategy toward the region.
Other Arab leaders fear that the United States will define its interest in change in such a way that will set the old political elite at odds with Washington. For them, the United States needs to articulate a vision of change that is compatible with their own interests (broadly defined), and that lays out a path forward that they could be persuaded to tread, even if grudgingly at first.
Saudi Arabia is clearly paramount in this area. King Abdullah himself appears to recognize the need for change within his oil-rich kingdom, and has begun a number of initiatives to overhaul the Saudi educational, economic, judicial, and social systems, although Riyadh has been notably slower to introduce reforms in the political sphere. Despite this, the Saudis clearly fear that the Obama administration now plans to throw its support behind revolutionary regime change across the region -- something very frightening to the Saudi ruling family, both in terms of what they believe it would mean for themselves and for their allies. To some extent, they even fear that the United States will go so overboard in embracing transformation that it will forget traditional threats like Iran, and will decide that countries that are not reforming at revolutionary speeds should become the principal target of American pressure instead.
For Riyadh in particular, then, it is vital for the United States to develop a new strategic narrative that paints developments in the region and the future of U.S. policy toward it in terms that are compatible with Saudi interests and fears, and that indicate how the United States will adjust to the changes sweeping the region, continue to address traditional threats like Iran and Salafist terrorism, and will do both in ways that Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies can accept -- even if reluctantly.
The United States should define the new regional struggle as one based on internal politics and the aspirations of the people of the region. It should accept that the region is now clearly divided. On one side are the states that have acknowledged the desires of their people for a better future and are taking concrete steps to improve their peoples' lives. On the other side are the states that are not, and are employing the failed methods of the old Middle East: repression, violence, fear, totalitarian control over information and expression, and the creation of internal or external scapegoats on which to blame their problems -- all to deny their people the better future they dream of.
Not accidentally, such a framework places the new Egypt, the new Tunisia, the new Libya, and hopefully the new Iraq squarely in the camp of those states in which such a change has begun, even despite the challenges that beset them. Despite their daunting problems, all are trying to democratize, all are responding to the desires of their people for better lives, more or less. It also places Iran, Syria, and groups like Hezbollah -- which is slowly gaining control over Lebanon -- in the camp of those states decidedly on the wrong side of history. In so doing, it should rally popular support for Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Tunisia and further alienate Iran and Syria from Arab public opinion. Indeed, recent public opinion polls demonstrate that this is already happening: Iran is no longer viewed by the Arab public as championing resistance to the old status quo, and is instead viewed as supporting its repressive clients in Syria and Lebanon and practicing similarly autocratic policies at home.
This strategic framework places a number of other countries exactly where they need to be -- right in the middle. Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, Bahrain, Algeria, and others have in the past made mostly half-hearted forays at reform. The United States should convey that it wants to help them move into the first camp. Indeed, all of them have been frightened by the waves of unrest, and this ought to serve as an important motivation to adopt meaningful change. An American willingness to help, if not push, such change should also keep them on the straight path and bring them more fully into the progressive camp farther down the road.
Reconciling Ends and Means
But can the United States actually affect this kind of change? It is clear that, today, the country faces very significant financial problems. Although the foreign aid budget had virtually nothing to do with those problems, the issue of spending cannot be ignored. Today, every nickel the U.S. government spends will be scrutinized, and there is little stomach for disbursing large amounts of new aid.
Part of the answer to this problem is that the United States can and should emphasize providing assistance to Middle Eastern states that costs little or nothing at all. To some countries, the United States can provide technology and know-how at little cost. Another thrifty way to help the Arab states is with diplomatic assistance -- from mobilizing NGOs and inclusive civil society to creating new international institutions, to addressing troublesome international issues. Some assistance can and should come in the form of military aid, such as maintaining training programs with Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and other states, and building a similar relationship with Libya. In most cases, such military assistance could employ forces that already exist, and much could be paid for by the governments themselves. The new Libyan government, for example, might use frozen Libyan assets to pay for U.S. arms and training for new security services and police.
But some commitment of U.S. resources will inevitably be warranted and required to push forward the changes occurring in the Middle East. Even small new aid packages could have an outsized impact on countries struggling to change, especially when they form the kernel of larger packages from U.S. allies and international organizations. Moreover, it is vital to remember the optics of U.S. policy at this crucial juncture: The people of the Arab world believe that the United States gave generously to the bad old regimes. If Washington were to suddenly cut its assistance to the Middle East precisely when the people of the region rose up and threw off their autocratic shackles, they will conclude -- now, and for a very long time to come -- that the United States was only interested in supporting repressive autocrats that did their bidding and had no real interest in helping the Arab people themselves.
Wasthington cannot lose sight of the importance of the changes that have now begun in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring. They are too important to the vital national interest to allow a few billion dollars -- an insignificant fraction of the total U.S. budget, let alone the national debt -- to become the difference between success and failure.
Out with the Old
Throughout the Cold War and over the past 20 to 30 years, the United States has seen the Middle East largely through the traditional lens of political power. It was the governments of the region that mattered, and conflicts between states that posed the greatest threat (even if those conflicts manifested themselves in competing attempts at internal subversion). Because the United States had allied itself with those states that largely benefited from the prevailing geopolitical arrangements, Americans saw the status quo as highly beneficial and any threat to it as correspondingly dangerous. Our great Arab allies -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco -- all liked things the way they were. The United States -- intent on ensuring that the oil flowed and that Arab states were officially or unofficially at peace with Israel -- also liked the way things were. Even Israel, after its victories in 1967 and 1973 and its failed attempt to rearrange the Levantine status quo in its favor in 1982, had itself become a status quo power.
Consequently, the United States became the great champion of the status quo in the Middle East and defined its adversaries -- Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Libya (until 2004) -- as those states seeking to overturn the status quo. In some sense this was correct, because those states were attempting to subvert the prevailing geostrategic realities to create new ones, centered on their own interests.
The great problem inherent in this construct was that the people of the Middle East saw the preservation of the status quo as condemning them to eternal misery. Maintaining the status quo against all foreign and domestic threats meant keeping the people of the Arab world down. It meant preserving the stagnant economic, social, and political systems of the region that were the source of their frustration. Thus preserving the status quo meant dismissing the aspirations of the people of the Middle East.
This, more than anything else, is why so many Arabs admired Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and even Osama bin Laden. They, at least, seemed to be fighting for change -- for overturning the status quo. And although most Arabs did not like what they stood for, they loved what they stood against -- the traditional order that oppressed them.
Because the United States supported the traditional order for geopolitical reasons, this also put it on the wrong side of Arab public opinion. Washington's support for the status quo was based on its focus on the region's geopolitical dynamics, but for the people of the Middle East, whose central concern was the region's stagnant economies and callous autocracies, that same defense of the status quo became a defense of their oppressors. It was a principal (albeit not the only) cause of the region's pervasive anti-Americanism.
Today, this strategy is categorically the wrong one for the United States to pursue, if it ever was the right one. More than anything else, the great Arab Awakening has meant that the people of the region can no longer be dismissed. After the wave of popular upheavals that rolled across the region in 2011, no Arab or external government can ever again afford to ignore the wishes of its people.
The old status quo is gone. Parts of it might be preserved for some time in some places, but it will never be re-created. The only wise path that the United States can take at this point is to accept that change is coming to the region, and to help the people of the region shape that change to their ends. If the United States comes to be seen as a willing partner of the Arab peoples in their quest to build a new kind of Middle East, then over time, we might find a new status quo emerge -- one that is truly peaceful and prosperous, and therefore stable. And if the United States helps in that effort, perhaps it, too, can be transformed, from the most hated and feared foreign power to one of the most beloved.
Certainly, Washington has nothing to lose. The strategy of the past condemned it to endless crises and conflicts in the Middle East, consuming more and more blood, treasure, and time as the years passed. And for what? In return, the United States reaped a volatile oil market and worsening anti-Americanism. It was not a very good deal. The Arab Awakening has offered the United States a second chance. It represents a new opportunity to remake America in Middle Eastern eyes, and become the country it imagines itself to be.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 05/11/2011
-Kenneth M. Pollack is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is the lead author of "The Arab Awakening: America and The Transformation of the Middle

Monday, December 5, 2011

Morocco's Islamist Prime Minister

By Avi Spiege
                                                      Abdullah Benkirane
The first elected Islamist party to take over the reins of government in the Arab world arrived in the unlikely location of Morocco. The Party of Justice and Development (PJD) finished first in the November 25 elections, gaining 107 of 395 seats in parliament. Their leader, Abdullah Benkirane, will now ascend to what was once considered an unthinkable position for an Islamist: he will be the country's next prime minister.
The Moroccan case challenges conventional wisdom about contemporary Islamists and contextualizes qualms about what they might do next. The PJD originated as an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. But while the Brotherhood only formed an official political party in 2011, their Moroccan brothers have been contesting elections and navigating party politics since 1998. Far from being revolutionary or even incendiary, Islamists of the PJD rose to the top not by challenging the status quo, but rather by skillfully and pragmatically abiding by it, even at times bolstering it. Their rule will likely be no different.
The first time I visited the headquarters of Morocco's main Islamist party was in 2006, a year away from its second full run in parliamentary elections. I was greeted by the unexpected sounds of laughter, as three young activists sat in the corner of the courtyard poking fun at a more senior member. "If you could have any ministerial position in government," one asked him, "which one would you choose?" Before he could answer, a voice from the distance shouted, "Why not Minister of Tourism!" And then the chuckles began. It was funny for them because back then it seemed so farfetched -- farfetched that the king would ever deign to ask them to serve as the public face of the country, especially overseas. They would, another joked, more likely scare away visitors then beckon them.
The Moroccan monarchy's gamble on limited political reforms is what made these daydreams a reality. When authoritarian leaders across the region this past year were folding or doubling down, the king of Morocco opted for watered down reform. Beginning in March, in an effort to co-opt local protests, government officials in Morocco told anyone who would listen that the king was going to great lengths to share his immense power. They then heralded his constitutional reforms that would, for example, ensure that the king would actually appoint the next prime minister based solely on election results (rather than deciding himself, as has been known to happen). 
But, in fact, the actual constitutional changes approved in a popular referendum in July left the core elements of monarchical supremacy intact. Every Moroccan -- regardless of his or her political views -- will readily admit that the king still runs the show. Anything resembling a budding democracy, or even a constitutional monarchy on the model of Spain or England, is still a long way away for this North African kingdom.
Perhaps because the political reforms proved so limited, the elections that followed exhibited neither the enthusiasm nor the dynamism of its neighbors in the region. Many activists opted to boycott. Turnout was low at 45 percent. The percentage of spoiled ballots, on other hand, was high (some estimates suggest up to one third).  And both of these figures were not drastically off from where they were in 2007. Such a managed, limited democratic fa├žade did not bother the PJD. Throughout the last decade, these Islamists readily went along with what can only be thought of as a puppeted political process. Authorities allowed them to participate in elections, but very clearly set specific limitations on their behavior. The palace, for instance, permitted the PJD to campaign, but state media regularly lobbied against its efforts. The party could field candidates, but it was often told how many seats it could contest, especially in 2003, following bombings in Casablanca. Also, the Moroccan government devised an electoral system so complex and multilayered that it became close to impossible for any single party to garner an outright majority. Nevertheless, the PJD ignored nay saying from other Islamists in the country; they chose to embrace elections instead of reject them.
The PJD were just as submissive when it came to the supposedly revered role of religion. When the palace intensified pressure against "religious parties," the PJD eschewed the label "Islamist." They opted, instead, to call themselves a party of "Islamic reference." They also agreed not to campaign in mosques. In fact, before the interior ministry permitted them to take part in elections in the late nineties, the party had to agree to certain ground rules. Most significantly, the king at the time, Hassan II, made clear that they would have to avoid "heresy" -- by which he meant, in language obvious to all citizens, there would be no religious challenges to the regime.
The PJD, in sum, seldom bit the hand that fed them. In fact, labeling such Islamist parties as "opposition" movements might even be somewhat misleading. For they saved their harshest verbal attacks, their sharpest criticism, not for those in charge, but for those they competed against: Leftists and outlawed Islamists. They sold themselves mainly as alternatives within the system -- as substitutes to the enervated and corrupt parties of yesteryear. Once in parliament, the PJD tried to shame these lackluster parties by taking attendance during open sessions. It even supported punishing those members of parliament who were absent.
Most significantly, unlike their Egyptian counterparts, the PJD has not displayed any ability or even desire to challenge or confront state authority this year. Indeed, in the midst of the Arab Spring, in the midst of the most historic protests in the modern history of Morocco (and, of course, the region), the PJD stood by the monarchy -- even when the other major Islamist group in the country, the banned Justice and Spirituality Organization, led marches to oppose it.
It therefore should come as no surprise that when the future Islamist prime minister of Morocco, Abdullah Benkirane, initially ascended to the position of party head in 2008, one of the first people to congratulate him was none other than the king himself. The monarch's praise was a reminder of the Islamist leader's track record of working with, not against, the regime. Benkirane had long exhibited, the king pointed out, a "desire to put the supreme interests of the nation and just causes above all other considerations."
After the PJD's first place finish this time around, Benkirane returned the favor. He reminded citizens that the real head of state in the country is the king. He said this, of course, in an effort to allay fears of an Islamist takeover. But he also, in the process, managed to admit the shortfalls of recent reforms. How democratic can a country be when the head of the winning party readily admits that his powers are limited?
Yet, both the king and the Islamist leader gained a great deal from these results. Benkirane, of course, earned the highest elected office in the country. But, by begrudgingly appointing him, the king showed that he was holding firm to his new constitution. Together, they now have an opening to put forward a new partnership of Islamist governance: one in which a monarch imposes a considerable check on the prospect of unbridled Islamist power.
This was not a difficult sell to many young Islamists. There has been good reason, after all, for the PJD to stand by the regime all this time. Party activists wanted to continue to reap the spoils of electoral inclusion: the jobs, the generous state electoral funding, the fancy party conventions, even the respect that comes with wearing suits and campaigning for office. During my two years of field research among young Islamists in Morocco, PJD activists would often tell me: "We are here because we have a future in the party." In a country of mass unemployment, where young people's futures are far from certain, this was a powerful inducement.
They also, of course, wanted to continue to hold the government positions they already had. And they carried out these jobs in much the same manner in which they had procured them in the first place: with disciplined pragmatism. The party's outbursts of hysterics tend to get the lion's share of media attention, such as when its affiliated newspaper blamed the Asian Tsunami on sinning Asians or when Benkirane himself lashed out at a camerawoman in parliament for her immodest attire. But, for the most part, the party's stabs at governance have been noteworthy largely for their lack of excitement.
The PJD candidates who held local office made fighting corruption and reorganizing city finances to eliminate waste their overarching themes. When a PJD candidate was elected the mayor of Kenitra, a city north of Rabat, one of his first major acts in office, for example, was to digitize municipal records. His rise was particularly telling: while serving as head of the PJD's youth wing (the biggest of any party in the country) he also held a desk job doing tech support for the prime minister's office -- back when the prime minister was a Socialist. He then went on to serve as an advisor on outsourcing to the economic affairs minister.
This yearning to get to work -- more to the point, to do the work of governing -- has long characterized the party, and there is little reason to believe that this will abate. At the headquarters following their second place finish in 2007, as party elites debated whether to join the government as a junior partner or remain outside it, young Islamists were heard making the surprising (and ultimately unsuccessful) case for the former. The rank and file, they said, could not go another five years without government jobs and related patronage. Now they won't have to wait any longer.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 05/12/2011
-Avi Spiegel is an assistant professor of political science at the University of San Diego and is completing a book on the rise of young Arab Islamists.