Recent events demonstrate that the so-called Arab Spring uprisings have toppled three North African tyrants that may be replaced by Islamist regimes. President Barack Obama deserves some credit if that happens, and the consequences could be devastating.
This spring, Obama said, “The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds.” At the time, Obama was reacting to criticism that his Arab Spring policy was incoherent and inconsistent. He ignored the revolution that ousted Tunisia’s president, pushed for the removal of Egypt’s leader, and launched a war against Libya’s dictator.
Those dictators are now gone, and in their places are countries on the verge of becoming Islamist states, which bodes poorly for the region and America’s interests.
Last week, a Tunisian Islamist party received a plurality (41%) of the votes for a national constitutional assembly, a one-year body charged with writing a constitution and appointing an interim president.
Nahda (renaissance), the first Islamist party to achieve such a victory, is led by Sheik Rached Ghannouchi, a man who just returned from a 22-year exile in the United Kingdom. Ghannouchi claims his party is a “broad umbrella party” of Islamists and “an antidote to the Western notion of a clash of civilizations.”
Tunisia’s election impressed Obama so much that last week he hosted that country’s acting prime minister at the White House. Obama used the occasion to praise Tunisia’s election as an “inspiration” and state he was “deeply encouraged by the progress.” But perhaps Obama wouldn’t be so sanguine if he knew Ghannouchi’s history.
Martin Kramer, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote a paper about Ghannouchi, which documents the Tunisian’s Islamic extremism and his hatred for America.
Ghannouchi threatened the U.S. in a speech given in Sudan in 1990. “We must wage unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam, or we will burn and destroy all their interests across the entire Islamic world,” Ghannouchi said to the Khartoum audience.
He visited the Islamic Republic in 1979, where he defended the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, claiming it was a “spy center.” Subsequently he helped “thaw relations between Sunni Islamist movements and Iran.” He reportedly received a delegation from Hezbollah—Iran’s terrorist proxy—while in Britain.
Ghannouchi’s radicalism was publicized as recently as 2001 on an al-Jazeera broadcast, when he extolled Palestinian suicide bombers and advocated anti-American violence. Is there any doubt Ghannouchi will try to make Tunisia an Islamist state?
Egypt is trending toward an Islamist regime thanks in part to Obama. In January, Obama pushed for the removal of Hosni Mubarak, a staunch ally who kept peace with Israel for 30 years. Then Obama applauded the revolution that ousted Mubarak as “a positive force for a democratic Egyptian future.”
But the post-Mubarak period hasn’t been “positive,” and time will tell whether it is “democratic.” So far it is marked by Islamist violence and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s political front, the Freedom and Justice Party, commands 34% of Egyptian votes, the largest of any party, according to polls.
The Brotherhood’s political platform calls for a state in which Sharia (Islamic law) rules. It promises to create a Supreme Council of Clerics, like the one in Iran, to exercise veto power over all laws. Other platform issues include forcing non-Muslims to comply with Islamic rules, making women second-class citizens, and a “revised” peace treaty with Israel.
Last year the Brotherhood’s leader, Muhammad Badie, said Muslim regimes must confront Islam’s enemies, Israel and the U.S., and that waging jihad against them is a commandment of Allah. Further, he said the U.S. is immoral and “experiencing the beginning of its end.”
The rise of the Brotherhood has encouraged incendiary rhetoric and violence against non-Muslims and Israel. On Sept. 20, Egyptian cleric Muhammad Abdu declared on Al Hekma television, “Tomorrow, we will destroy Israel and wipe it out of existence.” Such declarations are reminiscent of Iran’s mullahs, and may explain the increase in anti-Israeli violence, such as six militant attacks on Egypt’s gas line to Israel and attacks on the Israeli embassy in Cairo.
Non-Muslim Egyptians are singled out for abuse. Last month Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Al-Azhar, a center for Islamic learning, called Christians “kuffar”—infidels—and alleged they are guilty of the greatest sin, claiming Jesus Christ is both man and God. Weeks after Gomaa’s declaration, 26 Coptic Christians were killed and nearly 500 hurt during peaceful protests in Cairo over the latest church burnings. It is noteworthy that while Muslim mobs attacked the Christians, Egyptian security forces shot live ammunition at the demonstrators and then ran over many with armored personnel carriers.
Libya may very well become an Islamist state. It is telling and perhaps axiomatic that in August, Obama tried to encourage the Libyans by stating, “The Libya that you deserve is within your reach.” Maybe the Libyans “deserve” an Islamist government, but few American’s will celebrate that outcome after spending $1 billion to free the country.
Last week the U.S.-backed National Transitional Council (NTC) leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, marked the official victory with a “liberation” speech declaring, “We are an Islamic state,” and then outlined his vision for the post-Muammar Gaddafi future. He said, “This revolution was looked after by god to achieve victory. And we must go on the right path.”
The “right path,” he explained, is Sharia law, the “fundamental source” of legislation. All laws that contradict Islam’s teachings will be annulled. Only “Islamic banking” will be permitted (no interest charged), and polygamy will be reintroduced. He didn’t address the dress code for women, use of alcohol, freedom of speech, amputations for stealing, stoning for adultery, and other Sharia codes. Those will follow.
Consider the background of two of the most influential Libyans now helping form that government. Ali Al-Sallabi, a cleric close to the Muslim Brotherhood, claims to be like Tunisia’s Rached Ghannouchi. In September, Al-Sallabi criticized Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, who called for Sharia law, an “extreme secularist.” He has good relations with the Arab emirate Qatar, is an influential backer of the NTC, and has a wide network of contacts in global Islamist circles, according to Reuters.
The second influential figure is the current commander of the Tripoli Military Council, Abdelhakim Belhadj, a former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which is listed by the U.S. State Department as an international terrorist organization. He fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where he met with Osama bin Laden. He downplays accusations that he is an extremist, and told the British daily The Guardian that he warned the NTC against “attempts by some secular elements to isolate and exclude others [like Islamists].”
Tunisia, Egypt and Libya may become Islamist states, which could destroy regional democracy, peace, and America’s interests. An Islamist Egypt would likely quit being an American ally, and stabilizing the region and keeping peace with Israel. It would likely back Hamas’ violence against Jerusalem, host Islamic extremist groups, and support others who do.
An Islamist Tunisia would help radicalize neighbor Algeria, which previously flirted with Islamic extremism. Libya would be a wild card if it became an Islamist state. It has a small population, lots of land, and at least $250 billion in oil reserves. It sent many jihadists to fight America in Iraq, and could once again become a terrorist haven and seek weapons of mass destruction as did the dictator Gaddafi.
Obama’s Arab Spring policies are partly responsible for removing three North African tyrants. But, like the legendary Hydra, cutting off the head leaves us with something far more dangerous.