A new report from the Valdai Discussion Club takes a closer look at the political upheaval in the Arab World and different scenarios for the region’s transformation.

Human rights activists in the U.S. condemn the ongoing clashes between Egyptian civilians and military and police. Photo: Reuters

In response to the growing political instability and religious confrontation in the Arab world, Valdai Discussion Club recently issued a new report, “Islam in Politics: Ideology or Pragmatism?”, prepared by Russia’s high-profile experts and diplomats including Director of Institute of Oriental Studies at Russian Academy of Sciences Vitaly Naumkin, Ambassadors Alexander Aksenenok and Veniamin Popov.  

The report analyzes how the unfolding crisis in the Middle East and North Africa will affect the rest of the world.  On August 21, the authors of the report shared their findings at an event in Moscow, in which they outlined two startlingly different scenarios for the Arab world.

Two scenarios for the Arab world

The report focuses on two possible scenarios for the events in the Middle East and North Africa – one pessimistic, the other optimistic. According to pessimists, “the transformation of the Arab world will be a painful process that could last for years if not decades.” In contrast, optimists argue that “the peak has already passed or will pass in a year or so, and that the process has entered a new, less turbulent and radical phase.”     

The key factor in both of these scenarios will be the political role the Islamists play in the Arab nations currently facing a series of revolutions and upheavals. In one version, “Islamists are committed to remaining in power for the long term, and no other force will be capable of mounting a serious challenge in the near future.”

This would seem to suggest that the population’s confidence in the Islamists is not waning. “This trust will not be exhausted quickly,” the authors clarify. 

On the other hand, the report introduces another viewpoint that the Islamists’ days in power “are numbered – that they are incapable of solving the intractable, primarily socioeconomic problems facing their countries and cannot possibly live up to the great hopes invested in them by the mass protest movement that swept them to power.”  

When asked about which of these two is the more likely scenario, Vitaly Naumkin, one of the authors of the report and Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Russia Direct that currently the situation is so unpredictable that is very difficult to make forecasts regarding the Islamists.

“Every forecast might come true,” he said. “In the near future, they [Islamists] are hardly likely to regain their power, but at the same time, they are not going to give up. After all, they might go underground.  So, the short-term scenario (four to five years out) is pessimistic, while in the long term, it looks more or less optimistic. From this perspective, the Islamists have chances to regain their positions.”

Political Islam as a foreign policy tool in the Middle East

Another idea proposed by the Valdai report is that the rise of political Islam will result in the significant transformation of Arab society and “short-term major upheavals in the Gulf monarchies.”

According to the authors of the report, “the region has entered a protracted period of political chaos, economic decline and even existential threats to certain states. The dangers of disintegration, terrorism and other manifestations of radical Islam have grown within nations (Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria). And the new ruling elites have not consolidated power or demonstrated an ability to achieve the goals and ideals they proclaimed.”

The report also addresses the Syrian crisis and warns against the victory of Jihadist Islamists there.

“The outcome of the conflict will determine not only the nature of Syria’s further political transformation but also the fate of its neighbors,” the report says. “If the Jihadists win, ethnic and religious clashes are bound to surge in Syria. This scenario could lead to the partition of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.”

The specter of foreign interventions

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army's Tahrir al Sham brigade. Photo: Reuters

Foreign intervention in the Arab countries is another tricky problem that preoccupies the authors of the report, who seem to be very hesitant about justifying it. They warn against reckless decisions.

“The checks and balances system in the Middle East has taken shape over centuries,” they wrote. “But foreign interventions in Iraq destroyed the long-established triangle of stability in the region based on the mutual deterrence of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. The war in Iraq freed Iran’s hands and spurred its nuclear program.”

At the same time they don’t rule out international interference, pointing out the complexity of the issue. Every country in the Middle East requires an individual approach and a case-by-case study because the effectiveness of foreign interventions primarily depends on “the severity of the threat posed by a regime and the degree of consensus in the international community.”

“Foreign interventions will always rouse many negative emotions,” the report concludes. “But wherever there are conflicts it will always be an accompanying factor of influence, promising to either help put an end to them or fuel them. The international community should try to observe the established rules more carefully so as not to finally destroy the fragile and irreplaceable balance of forces in the region.”  

Egypt’s revolution: Another great leap to uncertainty

During the presentation of the report, one of its authors, Ambassador Alexander Aksenenok, expressed his concerns about the events in Egypt and the growing polarization of society.

“The Islamist movement made a series of mistakes. … Historically, society in Egypt has been secular. And now we see its polarizations, the clash of outlooks, that turned into the street protests,” he said pointing out to the indignation of ordinary people who seek to find out to whom their citizenship belongs – to Egypt or to Islam.

The report echoes his view: “The secular parties accuse Islamists of exploiting religion to seize power and being unfit to govern.”

Aksenenok regards the events in Egypt in two different ways: as a military coup and the collapse of Islamic dictatorship and as a contra-revolution.

“It’s neither the return to democracy nor the oppression of democracy because there is no democracy in Egypt,” he said.

According to him, the country made “the second leap to uncertainty.” So far there is no clarity if military forces want to save the Islamic movement or to oppress it and a lot will depend on external forces.

 A member of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporter of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi shouts slogans, in Cairo on August 16. Photo: Reuters

Another author of the report, Veniamin Popov, Ambassador and Director of the Civilizations’ Partnership Center at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, agrees that other countries play a crucial role in establishing dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood.

“There is no other way of resolving the standoff than dialogue,” he told Russia Direct. “Otherwise there will thousands of victims killed in clashes. How many people are you ready to sacrifice? Will you be fighting until the last Syrian citizen dies? We have to keep in mind that murder is unacceptable in the 21st century.”

Without effective negotiations, the Muslim Brotherhood might be radicalized. This is very important, given the fact that this movement enjoys a lot of support from the local population, Popov explains.

“The military regime [in Egypt] has in fact rejected [the chance] to establish dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Popov told. “If they are not engaged in dialogue they will go underground. This means they have to commit terror acts to remind people about themselves. It is difficult to say if they will be able to establish this dialogue. What they need now is to save their positions somehow.”

“And this radicalization can have a backlash on the West and Europe because there are a lot of Muslims there,” he said. “So, what is going on Egypt is only beginning.”   

Russia and the US in the Arab World

While talking about the implications of the Arab revolutions for Russia and the U.S., Naumkin argues that the U.S. is in a less favorable situation than Russia.

“The U. S. has bigger ambitions and calculations that they have to save their leading positions in the region,” he said. “Given growing anti-Americanism in the Middle East, it will much more difficult for them [to adjust to a new reality in the Arab world].”

In contrast, Russia is more modest in its ambitions and tries to find as many friends in the region as possible instead of imposing its will and assuming leadership, Naumkin explains.

“Russia must do more to improve its image in the Arab-Muslim world and to explain its foreign policy goals and actions so that they are not interpreted as hostile to the interests of the new Islamist governments and political forces in the Arab East,” the report reads. “Apart from the official level, actions to improve its reputation, as we see it, should take the form of scientific, cultural, women’s, youth and sports exchanges, contacts between NGOs, as well as joint cultural, sports and student festivals.”

Will the US and Russia be able to find common ground?

Vasily Kuznetsov, one of the authors of the report and a research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, doesn’t think that the Cold War mentality should prevent Russia and the U.S. from collaboration in resolving the Middle East standoff.

“After all, Russia and the U.S. don’t have radical contradictions in the Middle East. Their interests are the same: both want security,” he told Russia Direct. “Historically, Moscow and Washington teamed up in all the key problems of the 20th century – during World War I and World War II. So, we have many more positive aspects of collaboration than negative.”   

Gordon Hahn, Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), argues in his Russia Direct column that, “the U.S. and its allies are making the same mistake today with Islamic revolutionary and jihadist movements.”

“The U.S. has forgotten how to make alliances with authoritarian regimes in order to defeat totalitarianism,” he said. “The reality of both global politics and human nature is that sometimes you need to get into bed with some nasty people in order to defeat nastier people.”