The political history of the modern Middle East can easily be divided into three eras. In 1952, a military coup in Egypt signaled the start of the period in which radical Arab nationalism dominated. The 1979 Iranian revolution began the challenge of revolutionary Islamism. And then, in 2011, in the wake of more revolutions, Arab nationalism collapsed completely.
In most of the Arab world we are now in the era of the Muslim Brotherhood. Finally, there is a new “Middle East,” but instead of being directed by moderation, peace, and a hunger for material prosperity, it is dominated by Islamists determined to transform their own societies and to conquer the region for their cause.
The Muslim Brotherhood is overwhelmingly the most powerful organization in Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Tunisia, and very probably Libya, where its branches will control the governments. In Jordan, the brotherhood leads the opposition; in Syria, it plays an important role in the revolutionary upheaval.
There is much talk in the West, but little in the Middle East where people know it best, about how the brotherhood is becoming more moderate. Yet there is remarkably little evidence for this claim. Only self-serving statements by brotherhood leaders to Western journalists and governments make claims that the brotherhood has rejected its radical past and extremist ideology.
Look at any other data: internal statements to members and even the speeches of its leaders in Arabic; the behavior of its members in parliament, the brotherhood’s media; its support for violence; its open anti-Semitism, and its ideological discussions - and there isn’t the tiniest reason to believe that the brotherhood is mellowing.
The alternative wishful-thinking theory is that being in power will moderate the brotherhood. Participating in elections, proposing laws in parliament, and running government departments is supposed to convert brotherhood leaders to compromise and pragmatism.
For Israelis, however, all of these claims sound precisely like the argument made during the 1990s’ peace process and regarding Yasser Arafat. This argument also didn’t work in Iran, Lebanon, or the Gaza Strip.
True, the radical regimes are more cautious in their pronouncements and don’t instantly launch wars. But that is because they are consolidating power at home and are just getting started. Even in Turkey, the Islamists in power have worked tirelessly to transform their societies, assure that they never lose power, and radicalize their foreign policies. Turkey’s break with Israel and alignment with Hamas and Hezbollah provides a vivid case study.
Take the Egypt-Israel peace treaty as an example. The brotherhood has assured the U.S. that it will keep Egypt’s commitments but repeatedly stated that it will submit the treaty to a referendum or demand changes. It also insists that it will never recognize Israel. What is likely to happen is that a brotherhood-led government would formally say that it is following the treaty while emptying it of content and breaking it altogether whenever that seems possible and profitable.
The window opened in the 1990s for potential Israel-Arab and Israel-Palestinian peace has now closed completely. In an atmosphere of growing radicalization, nobody is going to take the risk of daring to make peace with Israel. Indeed, given the regional situation they are likely to believe they have no need to do so. Once again, as in decades past, the radicals (wrongly) believe they can destroy Israel; the moderates know any moves on their part would make them targets, too.
The most dangerous scenario facing Israel is an attempt by Hamas to take advantage of the new situation and even to drag Egypt into war with Israel, the kind of strategy that appealed to the PLO in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. As in late 2008, Hamas can escalate rocket, mortar and cross-border attacks on Israel. When Israel launches a large-scale retaliation, Hamas can appeal to the brotherhood for money, weapons and volunteers.
The Egypt-Gaza border is likely to be open to all three things. Attacks across the Egypt-Israel border will also be used. Even the current Egyptian army could not or would not want to stop most of these things. Worst of all would be if Egypt was pulled into the war directly. One can cite reasons why this wouldn’t happen - the Egyptian army knows it would lose; it wouldn’t want to throw away U.S. aid — but miscalculations of that type have often happened in the region. And by then the army might be too weak or infiltrated by radical officers to resist.
What can Israel do to respond to the brotherhood’s new power and threat? A lot. And Israel’s government is doing them all:
• Build up Israel’s defenses along the border with Egypt.
• Work whenever possible with Egypt’s army to reduce tensions and conflicts.
• Help ensure the Palestinian Authority’s survival, despite its objectionable behavior, so that it is not overthrown by Hamas in the West Bank.
• Do everything possible to support Jordan’s stability, which seems to be reasonably strong despite terrible problems, since a revolution there would bring a very anti-Israel regime and a real danger of war.
• Maximize pressure on the Gaza Strip to ensure that Hamas there is as weak as possible, but carefully calculate military operations, despite the frustrations involved, to avoid escalation.
• Try to persuade Western countries that they are missing the truth about the brotherhood. Sooner or later, the brotherhood’s behavior will force them to wake up, as has happened many times previously.
• Build cooperation with countries threatened by revolutionary Islamism, from China, India and Singapore to Africa, and even with opposition movements in Islamist-ruled countries.
But none of these things are solutions. Only the U.S. can lead an effective response to a regional order now overwhelmingly controlled by radical Islamists. What is needed is a broad, U.S.-led alliance of all the anti-Islamist forces which cannot work together directly but can cooperate through Washington.
Those forces include European countries, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Jordan and Israel. This would also mean a comprehensive program of overt and covert support for oppositions in Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and the moderates in Syria.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration is going in exactly the wrong direction, engaging the brotherhood and naively believing its promises.
Barry Rubin is an analyst at the GLORIA Center.