Peter Mandaville, professor of government and politics, Schar School of Policy and Government:
In the same way that some speak of “old Europe” and “new Europe,” I think it’s possible to think about today’s regional blocs in the Middle East as something like “old Middle East” and “new Middle East.” The former comprises a group of countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt—and I think we also need to include Israel, which makes it even more interesting) who would dearly love to recover a pre-2011 regional security order in which they felt very comfortable and for which they harbor considerable nostalgia today. This was basically a regional system enforced by the United States, and one in which Washington’s unwavering commitment to Riyadh, Cairo, and Tel Aviv was clear. The “new Middle East” group, on the other hand, includes several countries that have been pursuing greater independence in their foreign policy over the past decade. They have never de-coupled from their major alliances and patrons (e.g., Turkey remains in NATO while warming to Moscow; Qatar hosts US military facilities and works through the GCC even as it resists Saudi hegemony and explores a broader portfolio of regional partnerships), but have also demonstrated a willingness to improvise, hedge, and flexibly pivot in the face of what they recognize as highly fluid and rapidly evolving regional and global orders. This does not necessarily mean that the members of the respective blocs are diametrically opposed to each other on each and every issue–indeed, when it comes to Syria, for example, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey are all broadly on the same page–but it does speak to the presence of rather different longer-term strategic worldviews.
Are ideological differences salient to this new regional division? I do not think so. After all, it would be hard to identify any shared ideology uniting Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt. Rather, these two blocs have fundamentally different preferences with respect to the overall structure of regional security. However, we can certainly say that issues pertaining to specific ideological and religious groups are in play between the two blocs. One of them is clearly sympathetic to Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood variety while the other would prefer to see the Brotherhood eradicated as a social force in Arab societies.
Much of what we see today in the way of renewed and surging Sunni-Shi’a sectarian tensions are better understood as what Kamran Bokhari calls “geosectarianism”—that is, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. But this competition has created a regional overlay with implications that reverberate across and within borders throughout the Middle East. We see it quite directly in the domestic politics of many countries: Saudi-Iranian jostling in both Iraq and Lebanon; Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and dynamics in the Israel-Palestine conflict more broadly; and of course, to horrific effect and an unspeakable humanitarian toll, in Yemen.
So how should we think about the future of Islamist movements in light of this new regional geopolitics, particularly since political orientation towards the Muslim Brotherhood is one of its defining issues? First of all, I think it is important to recognize that even as they experience unprecedented levels of political oppression in some countries, mainstream Islamist movements will continue to be an important force in societies across the Middle East for the foreseeable future. Regimes will continue to modulate their policies towards these groups based on how they perceive their own security and legitimacy. What this means is that while it may sound outlandish given where we are today, I do not think you can rule out a scenario in the future in which an embattled Sisi in Egypt strikes a deal with some faction of the Brotherhood to shore up his popular support. However, this would amount to little more than the continuation of the cat and mouse games between regimes and Islamists that we’ve been watching for decades.
As I see it, the more important question bearing on the future of Islamism in the region relates to the more fundamental issue of how young people understand and think about Islamism as a distinct form of ideology and activism. There are signs today that the underlying sociology of attraction to and affiliation with Islamist groups may be undergoing a profound change. Is it still even possible, as proponents of the post-Islamism thesis have been wondering for some time, to equate Islamism with a clear and tangible political agenda? Or are we reaching a point where, as Avi Spiegel suggests in Young Islam, Islamism functions as little more than a nebulous aspiration for something other than the prevailing political order? To my mind, it’s the answer to this question that will determine the future of Islamist movements in the Middle East–and certainly more so than today’s highly fluid geopolitics.