Interview with the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center Paul Salem, conducted by Natalia Bubnova

Why have Islamic organizations not been active in the uprisings?

They were active. But they were not the ones that started them. The upheavals were started by young people, youth groups. They were really the vanguard; they were really the ones who started the ball rolling. Within a very short period of time it became clear that something very big was going on, and the Islamic parties, like other groups, quickly realized that they had to be part of this movement and they joined it. In Egypt, they very much were part of the Tahrir Square situation. They helped increase the number of protestors, they helped protect the protestors in Tahrir Square—they played a very key role. In Tunisia they were maybe less visible initially, originally they were less present than they had been in Egypt, but certainly they played a key role in Tunisia as well. There the Islamist opposition political party, the Renaissance Party or Nahda, is a fairly large and old organization and certainly was very much part of the revolution, and will be running for the next elections. It is important to note that these revolutions not only were started initially by young people rather than the organized political parties, but also that the revolutionaries’ slogans of democracy, human rights, freedom, anti-corruption, and social justice were not Islamist slogans.

The point to make is that in the past two or three decades, it appeared as if the Islamic movements were dominating public discourse and public opinion, and were the only movements that could bring out large numbers of demonstrators under their slogans. It turns out that the slogans of democracy and human rights could bring out more people and could lead much more quickly to the downfall of regimes. So the Islamic movements that are participating now have realized that they are only part of the society and that they cannot claim to speak for everybody, so that has pushed them to consider being more moderate and more, at least for the time being, limited in their ambition, rather than having the ambition of taking over power completely, which had been the idea after the Islamic Revolution in Iran and some other movements.

How possible is the transformation of the Arab states into democracies?

There are about twenty different Arab states, and obviously they are all in very different conditions and very different situations. Right now, we can talk about two states, very important ones—Egypt and Tunisia—which have had successful first steps in revolution, which is to remove the ruling family or party and to begin on the road toward constitutional reform and fresh elections for a new order and a new political system. In the case of Egypt and Tunisia, they have a good chance of a real transformation toward a functioning democracy. These will be democracies with many problems and challenges, and they will probably also be democracies like Turkey, where the military will continue to have a large role in decision making, alongside a powerful elected authority.

When we look at other Arab countries, there are certainly some that are in deep crisis, like Libya—which is going through a civil war—and other countries, like Yemen and Syria, which are also going through very violent periods—these might end up in collapse or civil war. Right now, we cannot say that they are on the road to transition to democracy. Right now, they are in the middle of crisis and we don’t know what the outcome will be.

In yet other countries, particularly the monarchies, you have two types—you have the non-oil monarchies like Morocco and Jordan, which are making steps toward reform, toward better elections, and toward more responsive government. They will remain monarchies and will remain largely authoritarian, but they will probably have much more accountability and democratization within a monarchical system—i.e., moving in the direction of a constitutional monarchy.

On the other hand, the monarchies with oil—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and so on—generally have not been affected by serious waves of political protest. However, there are two smaller countries, Bahrain and Oman, which have been affected, and they have gone in different directions. Oman, which had some protests, presents the possibility that some reform will be positive within the confines of a monarchy, whereas in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council sent troops to quash the protests.

So really you have a very wide variation in the Arab world—Egypt and Tunisia right now are the only countries that are clearly moving in the direction of democracy. Egypt is a key country because it is the largest, it is the most central. If Egypt makes it to democracy, then that will have a big long-term influence on all other countries and continue to push them toward more democratization.

How likely is the emergence of a charismatic leader in the Arab world and, if that happens, where will he come from?

Right now there is no indication of any leader, charismatic or not. These revolutions have occurred without leadership, and maybe that is one of the reasons why they’ve remained very democratic, why they have not, in many cases, been stopped—because there is nobody to stop, it is just a large group of people. The only relevant possibility is Egypt, if—in the presidential elections that are supposed to happen in the fall of this year—a candidate emerges who might have charismatic appeal. Right now, none of the candidates who have come forward so far has any major charismatic appeal, particularly to young Egyptian voters. So far, there is no charismatic leadership—it could probably only emerge from Egypt, if at all, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Speaking of Egypt, how likely is the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in a coalition in the future? Do you think that such coalitions with the participation of Islamists would be stable?

It is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood will have a large representation in the parliament after the next election. They will probably not get a majority of seats, and they probably do not want to get a majority of seats—but they will likely be the largest single bloc in parliament. They will likely be members of the government, but they will probably restrict themselves to certain ministries and not others. They would probably like to be involved in ministries that relate to education, to religious matters, to social issues, and probably don’t want to be involved in ministries that are more difficult, like finance, economy, and foreign affairs.

It is too early to say what type of coalition might emerge. Keep in mind that Egypt will remain—for the time being—a largely presidential system, so the presidential elections are very important, although there will also be a cabinet, which will probably include different political parties. It is too early to say how this coalition will be formed, but the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to be part of it. So far, the indications are that such coalitions are possible.

Does Egypt have a chance to lead the Arab world? Will Egypt influence the events in Libya and will Egypt want to influence them in the future?

Egypt will have only soft power, not hard power. Egypt does not have financial surpluses to use, nor is it at all interested in projecting military power or using much hard power anywhere. Egypt has a lot of problems of its own, huge economic challenges, challenges of resources, agriculture, food, and so on. So it would only lead in terms of soft power, which might mean Egyptian diplomacy.

We’ve already seen Egypt succeed in brokering a deal between the Fatah movement and the Hamas Party, which is quite an achievement. If Egypt becomes a stable democracy, that is going to increase the pressure on countries that have still not implemented democratic reform. However, that does not mean Egypt will force countries to reform, but the example will be quite significant. On Libya, Egypt does not want to get seriously involved; it already has enough to deal with in terms of border issues, refugees, Egyptian laborers, and so on. Beyond participating in Arab diplomacy, Egypt will not seek to play any larger role.

The military might become influential in Tunisia and Egypt in their transitions to democracy. Based on the example of Egypt, what is the role of the military in the transition from an authoritarian regime to something different, hopefully a democracy?

In both Egypt and Tunisia, very clearly in Egypt, the population appealed to the armed forces to protect the revolution and to intervene in its favor and, in fact, the army did just that; it protected the revolution, and effectively facilitated and pushed the departure of President Hosni Mubarak. So the military in Egypt—and to a lesser degree the military in Tunisia—played a very key role. And in that sense the revolutions were almost partial revolutions. In other words, they did not seek the complete removal of the regime; in fact, they asked one part of the regime to move against another part in order to implement a profound reform toward democratization. This is where Egypt and Tunisia are now.

Some of the protestors in Syria are now calling on the Syrian army to do the same thing, and there have been calls for the Yemeni army to do the same as well, so this has become somewhat of a pattern. Now the protestors realize they need an institution that can ensure stability and security and continuity through this period of transition. Turkey is a case in which the military dominated the country for many years and then, all the way back in the 1950s, decided to move toward democracy, and the army was the one that shepherded the country toward democratization. However, they wanted to make sure that democratization would not lead to a division of the country, would not lead to chaos, and would not lead to radical parties taking power. Those same concerns exist now in Egypt and Tunisia. Many people are afraid of chaos, many people are afraid of radical groups possibly trying to take advantage of the situation, so many of them see the army as their guarantee against those things.

How can the Arab Spring influence the Middle East conflict? What does the unification of Fatah and Hamas mean for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? And is there a chance that this unification will lead to a “Hamasization” of the West Bank, meaning a real strengthening of the positions of Hamas?

There are two somewhat separate issues—the Arab Spring in general and the particular Fatah-Hamas deal.

The Arab Spring in general has been largely about domestic issues, not about regional or international issues—so at one level, these revolutions have not had a direct impact on foreign policy or the Arab-Israeli conflict. But there have been some clear effects. First of all, Egypt, although it has not broken its treaty and will not break its treaty with Israel, has certainly moved farther away from Israel and can no longer be counted on as a “friend” of Israel, as Mubarak could be counted on. The king of Jordan can also no longer be counted on as a reliable friend of Israel, so Israel today has lost all of its friends in the region—it has effectively lost Egypt, lost Jordan, and previously lost Turkey. So Israel on that level finds itself much more isolated than it has ever been since Camp David.

The general effect is that the Palestinian population—looking at revolutions in other Arab countries—has seen that populations in the Arab world have been able to revolt against injustice, against unjust conditions that have been imposed by force, like in Egypt or Tunisia or Syria. And at some point the Palestinians might translate that into some kind of new defiance against the Israeli occupation. That is not happening now because the Palestinians have a much more immediate agenda, and that begins with the Fatah-Hamas agreement. The Fatah-Hamas agreement is a demand of the Palestinian population that became very loud after the Arab Spring. The Palestinians said, “The first thing we need to do in our Arab Spring is to be united as a population.” So they put a lot of pressure on Fatah and Hamas to do this. Hamas went along and signed the deal—which it had refused to sign previously—because Egypt has now become much more positive toward Hamas. Hamas feels much more comfortable with the Egypt of today than the Egypt of Mubarak, so it felt it could sign a deal that was brokered by Egypt.

The second reason is that Hamas has had problems with the Syrian government in the past weeks because of the problems Syria is having with its own population. Hamas did not take sides in the Syrian confrontation, and the Syrian government was unhappy with Hamas because it did not openly support the government. So Hamas is moving away from Syria and closer to Egypt, and that is part of the reason to sign the deal.

The impact of the deal will be the formation of a technocratic government with members neither from Hamas nor from Fatah. The immediate focus is to try to quickly improve conditions on the Gaza Strip, which have been terrible since the war of 2008-2009, and to move a lot of aid into Gaza, which is a very urgent humanitarian need. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is going to call on the UN General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state. Because of the deal between Fatah and Hamas, Abbas can now speak in the name of all Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza before the UN and before the world community, which makes his position much stronger. So those are the short-term impacts. Fatah and Hamas are talking about organizing elections in May of 2012, a year from now, but that is about the extent of the deal for now.

What about al-Qaeda’s recent declaration that it played the leading role in the Arab revolutions?

That is obviously not true at all, it is kind of laughable. Al-Qaeda has almost no support in the Arab world; it lost support several years ago, well before the whole issue of the Osama bin Laden assassination. In the Arab world, al-Qaeda is a very marginal group without much of an audience. Its statement that it had anything to do with these revolts is laughable, it is completely untrue, and not really worth commenting on because it is utterly absurd. Al-Qaeda might take advantage of certain situations where there is unrest or insecurity. It might take advantage of the situation in Libya, it might take advantage of the situation in Yemen, it might take advantage of the situation in Syria, but beyond that it has no role in the revolutions themselves.

How are all these events likely to influence the situation in Iran?

The uprisings in the Arab world gave some encouragement to Iranian protestors a few months ago. When the Arab activities started, there were some demonstrations in Iran again, related of course to the demonstrations that had started after the Iranian elections of 2009. But one should not exaggerate those connections. It is very clear that there is an Arab world, there is a Turkish world, and there is an Iranian world. When protests erupted in Tehran in 2009, there was very little reaction in the Arab world, whereas when they erupted in Tunisia, within two months, the whole Arab world was aflame. And when democracy came to Turkey a few decades ago, not much happened in the Arab world, but when democracy came to Tunisia and Egypt, the whole Arab world changed. So Arab society and Iranian society have a lot of distance between them because of different languages and different cultures. There isn’t a huge impact from the Arab uprisings on the Iranian uprisings. Iran is going through its own period of contestation, protestors, opposition leaders, even tension now between the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, so Iran has its own challenges.

In terms of Iranian foreign policy or regional interests in the Middle East, Iran was hoping that these Arab revolutions would turn out in its favor, that they would benefit it. Yet even though a number of the leaders who have fallen—like in Egypt and Tunisia—or might fall, like in Yemen, are Western allies, American allies, none of these countries as a result is moving closer to Iran, so Iran is not winning from these changes. So now the big question is about Syria, which is an Iranian ally. If leadership in Syria changes, that could have a big impact on Iranian interests, because it might lose Syria as an ally and thereby lose its ability to support Hezbollah in Lebanon, meaning it would lose its access to the Palestinians as well—and hence could no longer claim to be a player in the Arab-Israeli conflict. So that could be a very major loss for Iran if it happens. But that hasn’t happened yet, and it might not happen.

In terms of Iran’s soft power, the revolutions of Egypt and Tunisia have eclipsed Iran’s revolution, which had been the last big revolution in the Middle East. Iran kept saying that they are the revolution, that they represent removal of dictatorship, they represent these values, but that is now past. Now the heroic pictures and heroic merit come from Egypt and Tunisia and Libya and Yemen, not from Iran. Particularly when Iran is dealing with its own protestors like the Arab dictators dealt with their protestors. So it has very much lost its soft power as a result of that.

What is likely to happen in Syria?

In Syria, obviously the situation is very, very grave, very serious. If we have learned anything from these Arab uprisings, it is that we cannot predict what will happen, that the people have surprised themselves and surprised their governments. So nobody really can predict what is going to happen in Syria.

There are a few possible scenarios. The first is that Syria could continue to contain the situation like Iran has contained its own protests so far. Syria might manage, at very high cost and with bloodshed, to continue to contain the situation. But at the end of the day, the only way to make progress is to address some of the main demands of the protestors, which have now become general Arab demands: more democracy, more freedom, less corruption, and so on. Another scenario is that the authorities might possibly find some ground between reform and repression. So far, they have not done that, although they have talked about it. The third scenario is much worse: if the protests become much bigger and if the regime continues to use massive force, Syria could possibly drift into full-scale civil war that would break down along sectarian and ethnic lines, and Syria could end up looking like Iraq a few years ago or like Lebanon during its civil war. That is a danger that many people are aware of; we hope it doesn’t get there, but that is a possibility. So Syria is very hard to predict. One would hope that the Syrian government takes steps quickly to respond to the demands of the protestors.

Can the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, plus Jordan, gradually transform into constitutional regimes and, in particular, can Saudi Arabia transform into a constitutional monarchy?

The Arab monarchies in the Gulf are in different positions along the lines of how much democratization they have achieved. On one hand, you have Kuwait, which has had free and fair elections for many years, a free parliament, a free press, and an accountable government. It is quite democratic. At the other extreme is Saudi Arabia, which has no elected national council whatsoever. It has partially elected municipalities, but that is all, so you have a very different model.

A number of these smaller Gulf kingdoms (not Saudi Arabia) have been moving toward gradually allowing more free press and allowing elections of different degrees of freedom and significance. Some are moving more quickly down that road. None of them will arrive any time in the near future at a state of full constitutional monarchy; in other words, something in which decision making is democratic. They are moving in the direction in which the monarch can absorb enough public discontent and include enough public participation to maintain stability, but not give up power to the public. Saudi Arabia continues to resist that trend, and continues to claim that it is different. So far it has been able to do that. It has not been affected dramatically by the wave of uprisings of the past few months, but one should expect that some time in the near future Saudi Arabia will face questions of political participation and accountability.