FT on Arab impotence & Islamists' gains

William wrote a good article in today's Financial Times on the Arab regimes' impotence, the Sunni-Shiite divide in the region, and how the (Sunni) Islamists' solidarity with the Lebanese Shiite group is boosting their influence.



Arab regimes fear Islamists' political dividend

By William Wallis in Cairo July 21 2006 For Islamist groups beyond the immediate reach of Israeli firepower, the explosion of conflict in Lebanon may prove double-edged.As the only organised opposition to entrenched autocracies, articulating the outrage that many Arabs feel, Islamists from Morocco to Saudi Arabia look set to gain from a fresh groundswell of public support. But the immediate response of conservative, US-allied Arab regimes may be to close down those remaining channels through which they have made political gains. Burnt by the electoral successes of some of its and Israel’s most virulent opponents, Washington is less enthusiastic about democratising the region and is unlikely to make a fuss. As in the past, when Palestinian civilians have fallen victim to the Israeli army, so the bombardment of Lebanon and Gaza has exposed the limited capacity of Arab governments to come to the rescue. Moreover, events in Lebanon have served as a reminder of how quickly Washington can drop an Arab ally - in this case the Siniora-led government in Beirut - when Israel’s “right to self-defence� is at play. Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab states formally at peace with Israel, have both issued measured criticism of Israel’s devastation of Lebanon, but it was only on Thursday that two Arab governments delivered stronger condemnations. Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki described the Israeli offensive as “operations of mass destruction� while the Saudi defence minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, said: “We cannot tolerate that Israel plays with the lives of citizens, civilians, women, old people and children.� What has been new is that along with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt also blamed Hizbollah, and indirectly its Syrian and Iranian backers, for stirring a tiger with destabilising consequences for all.Among much of the Arab population, however, the abduction of Israeli soldiers first by Sunni Palestinian militants and then by the Lebanese Shia guerrillas, Hizbollah, was seen as heroic - legitimate means to leverage the release of Palestinian and other Arab prisoners in Israeli jails.Islamist groups have been quick to exploit the resulting discomfort of Sunni Arab governments, which has been heightened by their fears of rising Iranian influence in the region.“Hizbollah has become a role model which attracts people because it contrasts so much with the paralysis of Arab regimes who supposedly have the power yet play only a dwindling and embarrassing role,� said Mohamed Habib, deputy leader of Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest Sunni Islamist movement. The Islamist Labour party went further, describing Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ageing president as “an organic extension of this Zionist Crusader campaign.�Mr Mubarak has defended his role in attempting to defuse the crisis: initially trying to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners in return for the first soldier captured, Corporal Gilad Shalit, and also claiming that he had persuaded the Israelis to hold off a broader land attack on Lebanon. But by Saturday, when Arab foreign ministers appealed for help from the United Nations, it was clear that no western-allied Arab leader had much leverage, the agenda having shifted to more radical groups and states - notably Syria and Iran. “It is the first time in the Arab Israeli conflict to see two fronts opened up by two Islamist movements. This partly explains the reaction coming from the Arab regimes,� said Dia Rashwan, expert at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic studies. “It is risky for them too.�Predictably, Israeli officials argue that the raids on Israel are evidence that a policy of accommodation with political Islam, which has seen Hamas win control of the Palestinian government and Hizbollah secure the largest opposition block in Lebanon’s parliament, does not lead to moderation.For different reasons, the Egyptian government has adopted a similar strategy towards its own Islamist adversaries, although past evidence suggests the use of force often fuels more violent Islamist agendas. Since the Muslim Brotherhood made unprecedented gains in parliamentary elections last December, more than 700 of its members have been detained.Asked whether the crisis in Lebanon might lead to further set backs, Mohamed Habib gave the verbal equivalent in Arabic of a shrug. The Muslim Brotherhood has survived waves of repression over more than 70 years, during which the Arab Israeli conflict has become part of its raison d’etre. Neither the Brotherhood, nor the allied movements it spawned are likely to go away now.