Here’s a good symbol of the recent turn of events in the Middle East: troops from Mali marching in a Bastille Day parade in Paris, in gratitude to the French for helping to defeat Islamists in Mali’s north. Yes, I know, Mali is not in the “Middle East.” It’s in Sub-Saharan Africa, or maybe just plain old Saharan Africa. But a lot of the same forces are at work, with Islamists spilling over from the conflict in Libya, taking over a local insurgency, and alienating everyone so much that Malians gladly called in European troops to help them drive out the Islamists.
But that isn’t to say that things are going to go smoothly.
I’ve become something of a fan of “Nour the Intern” at an Egyptian blog called The Arabist. (She hooked me with her description of a visit to Egypt’s gun market.) The Arabist was started by Egyptian journalist Issandr El-Amrani, with contributions from Western journalist Ursula Lindsay. But the attention the blog received during Egypt’s revolution elevated the profiles of its main contributors so much that their work started to appear in more mainstream publications and they stopped posting regularly to the blog. In recent months, the slack has been taken up by Nour Youssef, a.k.a. “Nour the Intern,” who writes colorfully about what Egypt is like from the perspective of a young, secular female.
One of her latest updates sums up the current state:
“The word polarization fails to describe what is happening now. Public opinion is more of an aggregation of wishes for the defeat, suffering, and death of certain members of the public, who are no longer considered members altogether, by other members of the public, whom they no longer consider members of the public.”
“Case in point, the sentence ‘We need to cleanse Egypt of (insert group of people you disagree with)’ is one I hear everywhere. The refusal to accept that the country will not run out of Islamists or secularists for many years, if ever, and that neither party can be effectively shunned from society, is making conversations simply exhausting.”
It’s important to remember that what’s going on in Egypt is not the unmitigated triumph of the secularists. Rather, it is a victory by secularists in coordination with the army and the old regime against one major faction of the Islamists. In fact, there is speculation that the old regime helped cause the public to turn against the Muslim Brotherhood by engineering a kind of commercial and government slowdown, as demonstrated by how rapidly life in Cairo improved the moment the Muslim Brotherhood was kicked out of power. This is put forward as a kind of conspiracy theory, but I suspect the truth is something simpler: the secular portion of Egyptian society was unofficially, informally on strike, refusing to work hard and put out its best effort for the benefit of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But it’s important to remember that, while the army cracks down on the Brotherhood, there is another major faction of Islamists off to the side, the salafists, who are just as bad and possibly worse. They have managed to secure a few key concessions from the army in exchange for supporting the move against the Brotherhood—which after all, was their main rival. So while the secular faction in Egyptian politics is awakening to its own power, so are the salafists.
So this is not about the triumph of one side over the other. It is about an ongoing, long-term conflict between the two sides. Which is big progress, because for the past year, the news has mostly been about the Muslim Brotherhood steamrollering over the secular liberals.
The same thing applies to Turkey, where the battle continues over Gezi Park in Instanbul’s Taksim district, which has become a rallying point for opposition to a slow-motion Islamist takeover under President Erdogan. Here is the latest new:
“The Turkish Parliament on Saturday amended an army regulation that had paved the way for military intervention in politics—another step in years of attempts by the pro-Islamic government to rein in the power of an army once prone to staging coups….
“The legislation came after large antigovernment riots in June, as protests about the razing of a park grew into demonstrations against what many called Mr. Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies. Although the army did not step into the conflict, Atilla Sandikli, director of the Ankara-based Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies, said the wording change was also an effort to ensure that it would not do so.”
You can see how worried they are after Egypt’s coup-by-popular-demand. And that’s a good thing. “A little rebellion now and then” may help keep Erdogan in check, afraid to push too far too fast, and buy time for the young liberals.