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Robert Grenier
Robert Grenier
Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG partners, a financial consultancy firm.
Acknowledging political Islam
The US has historically supported suppressive secular regimes in the Middle East, a policy with obvious shortcomings.
Last Modified: 02 Jan 2011 13:52

Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the Democratic opposition going against incumbent Hosni Mubarak in the upcoming elections, has catalogued the rights violations committed by the Egyptian regime. But when push comes to shove, would Western nations really support him if it meant Islamists in the periphery gaining more power? [EPA]

"Regimes that fight, survive."

The words were those of a senior member of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the "house" think-tank of AIPAC, the pro-Israel US lobbying organisation. Spoken at a scholarly conference in 1992, they were meant as a reproach to people like me, who argued that an ageing generation of autocratic leaders in the Middle East risked facilitating the rise of a wave of violent, anti-democratic Islamists unless they were willing to accommodate the aspirations of the seemingly more democratically-inclined Islamists in their midst.

A movement to which we referred in those days as "political Islam" was gaining momentum throughout the region, and there was much disagreement among Western scholars and government practitioners as to how - or indeed whether - to accommodate it. The language of political opposition in the region, then as now, was overwhelmingly Islamic; the question was whether there were any useful distinctions to be made among the various Islamist currents, and whether any would permanently accept a democratic model - or instead adhere, as many feared, to a doctrine of "one man, one vote, one time."

Choosing suppression over justice

WINEP, then as now, was generally representative of right-leaning political opinion in Israel, and this case was no exception. One of the more influential voices from that quarter belonged to Binyamin Netanyahu, who argued at the time that there was a clear alignment of interests between Israel and the secular regimes of the surrounding Arab states.

The Islamist trends beginning to menace the latter were echoed in newly-ascendant Islamic-inspired Palestinian organisations such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which posed the greatest threat to Israel. The secular Arab regimes, according to this line of thinking, should therefore find it in their interest to make peace with Israel and isolate the Islamists, both in Palestine and elsewhere, rather than allowing Islamic oppositionists to exploit a growing identification between Islam and Arab nationalism, and to use popular anti-Israeli sentiment to engulf both Israel and the Arab regimes alike.

Therefore, my WINEP friend argued - in suitably coded language - the Arab regimes should employ against the Islamists the repression so successfully employed by Israel in thwarting the Palestinians' popular resistance to occupation during the first Intifada: "Regimes that fight, survive."

The issues of the day were most starkly represented in Algeria, where a moderate Islamist opposition led by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had made rapid democratic inroads, only to be brutally repressed in early 1992 by the Algerian army, just when it was on the verge of winning an overwhelming majority in the Algerian National Assembly. The muted response of the US and other Western powers to this military coup gave testament to their fear of the Islamist wave, and the primacy in their thinking of practical over ideological considerations.

Whatever their pro-democratic rhetoric, when faced with a choice between the ascension of religiously conservative Arab nationalists overtly opposed to US policy in the region on the one hand, and repression on the other, the West was prepared to support repression. My friend from WINEP, no doubt, approved.

The elusive promise of stability

Appalled at the time by what I regarded as a pusillanimous and hypocritical US policy, my dissenting view was based not just on moral, but on practical criteria. I did not believe that support for democracy should only be bestowed on those democrats favourable to us. More pointedly, however, it seemed to me that the Arab masses, if denied the opportunity for political recourse through democratic means, would turn instead to revolutionary forces who embraced a far more radical and violent conception of Islam.

And indeed, such was the path immediately taken in Algeria. With the moderate, democratic Islamist opposition imprisoned or otherwise neutralised by the regime, its place was assumed by far more radical, Takfiri elements, represented by the GSPC. Algeria descended into a cauldron of almost unimaginable violence, which was ultimately to claim as many as 200,000 lives.

All this came back to mind recently in response to an op-ed penned in the US press by Mohamed ElBaradei, former Director-General of the IAEA, and now the putative head of Egypt's democratic opposition. In it he catalogues the many abuses perpetrated by the Mubarak regime during the just-concluded Egyptian parliamentary elections, and decries the policies of Mubarak and his cronies in the NDP and the security forces not just on moral grounds, but on practical ones as well. Their tactics, he asserts, carry with them the ultimate threat of revolution, and should therefore draw the active opposition of the West: "The rights of the Egyptian people," he says, "should not be trampled in exchange for an elusive promise of stability."

I strongly agree with ElBaradei, and am convinced that the ambivalence of US attitudes toward democracy in the region - most clearly seen in the hostile US reaction to Hamas' sweeping electoral victory in 2006 - carries a clear threat of promoting long-term disaster. But one must concede that the course of history between 1992 and now much more clearly favour the old arguments put forward by WINEP than they do my own.

Shifting power structures

Consider: The Algerian civil war of the 1990s, rather than ending, as I had initially anticipated, in the defeat of a corrupt, military-dominated elite, has instead led to the thorough marginalisation of a violent Islamist movement which has discredited itself in the eyes of the people. While its face has changed, the old elite survives. And the passing of an elder generation of leaders, rather than hastening the disintegration of repressive and unrepresentative power structures across the region, has led instead to the relatively smooth transfer of power to their sons - in Morocco, in Jordan, in Syria, and in UAE. We can probably expect to see the same shortly in Libya and, most significantly, in Egypt - Mr. ElBaradei and the democratic opposition notwithstanding.

I believe it is right that ElBaradei should solicit the support of world opinion and warn of the consequences for regional stability of the continued frustration of Egypt's popular aspirations for reform. No doubt his pleas will continue to receive an encouraging echo in the Western press. But if he expects more than that, he is fooling himself. For when push comes to shove, the US and other western governments, to the extent they can influence events at all, will opt, in Mr. ElBaradei's words, for the elusive promise of stability.

It is easy to criticise an unlovely regime like that of Hosni Mubarak, and both public and private figures in the US rise enthusiastically to the task. But just let them glimpse a realistic prospect for the Egyptian Muslim Brothers to gain a significant share of power, and their enthusiasm will rapidly wane. I and others who believe as I do remain convinced that this is a significant mistake, and that the prominent current of thinking in the US which refuses to make a significant distinction between groups like the Muslim brothers and the violent Islamists who embrace the banner of Al Qaeda is wrong-headed. Our problem is that we simply cannot find compelling evidence to make our case. Absent new facts, which only the people of the region can provide, we are destined to lose the debate.

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service.  He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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