The Middle East Channel

Multiple explosions hit Iraq ahead of Arab League summit

A wave of at least 16 near-simultaneous explosions in six cities across Iraq killed an estimated 46 people and injured over 200 on Tuesday morning. The attacks included multiple suicide and car bombings. One of the blasts came from an improvised explosive device stuck to a car outside the foreign ministry, where Iraqi diplomats and workers have been preparing for next Tuesday's Arab League summit to be held in Baghdad. The meeting will be the first significant diplomatic event in the country's capital since the U.S. troop withdrawal in December 2011 and the first time Baghdad will host the meeting in 20 years. Meanwhile, another attack occurred when a bomb was detonated inside the garage of a police department in Kirkuk (timed with another blast on the same street) resulting in the deaths of 13 people and injury of 30. But the day's deadliest attack took place in the predominantly Shiite city of Karbala where two car bombs exploded in a busy shopping area.

Syria

Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to the Syrian opposition's Free Syrian Army (FSA) accusing the FSA of human rights abuses including "kidnapping, detention, and torture of security force members, government supporters, and people identified as members of pro-government militias, called shabiha." The accusation came after the opposition took fighting to Mezzeh, a wealthy area of Damascus. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has obtained hundreds of pages of documents that shed light on President Bashar al-Assad's strategy to quell uprisings. The documents were leaked by Abdel Majid Barak, a defector who was one of the Syrian governments most trusted officials. The documents were prepared for Assad by his intelligence and security chiefs, and included plans for the crackdowns in Aleppo and Idilib and strategies for preventing protests from spreading to Damascus. Elsewhere, Russia has joined western countries in a call for a humanitarian truce in Syria as regime bombardment resurged in Hama when FSA forces resumed operations in the area.

Headlines  

  • A classified U.S. war simulation predicted that an Israeli strike on Iran could escalate into a regional war, raising fears that the United States would not be able to remain on the sidelines.
  • France's Interior Minister Claude Gueant reported that the gunman who shot and killed three children and a teacher outside a Jewish school on Monday recorded the shootings.
  • Tens of thousands of people gathered in Cairo for the funeral of Coptic Christian Pope Shenouda III.
  • Yemen's Ministry of Human Rights released casualty figures in the past year of uprisings, citing 2,000 deaths. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis protested for the trial of former President Saleh.

Arguments & Analysis

'Strategic breadth and depth: An online syposium on Turkish foreign policy' (multiple authors, Cairo Review of Global Affairs)

Leila Hilal: "Turkey is concerned about the potential for a proxy spillover as Al-Assad could leverage PKK elements within Syria in response to intervention. Perhaps more threatening is how a post-Assad Syria will resolve the long-standing disenfranchisement of its Kurdish population, as Turkey's parliament engages constitutional negotiations including on the status and treatment of 14 million Kurds in the country."

Marc Lynch: "Davuto?lu's comments about Turkish hopes of reshaping the region around more democratic governments and more cooperative relations offer a useful long-term strategic vision. Turkish good offices will continue to be useful in diplomacy with Iran and Syria, and Turkish businesses will be major investors and partners in the opening Arab markets. Indeed, one of their greatest accomplishments may ultimately prove to be the normalization of Turkey in the Middle East, turning it from a distant and disliked outsider into a regular, unexceptional player in a new kind of regional politics."

Michael Wahid Hanna: "With its Islamist pedigree, Turkey's current leadership must now look beyond those groups with which it has natural affinities, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sunni political class in Iraq, and engage with those communities fearful of a regional Sunni political project. Turkey is uniquely positioned to play such a role and in eschewing a narrow Sunni-focused foreign policy. Turkey can be constructive in preempting crisis and fostering stability. "

'Use national dialogue to boost the Yemeni economy' (Abubakr al-Shamahi, The Daily Star)

"A quick way to bolster the economy, and for Hadi to show that he is serious about change, would be to renegotiate the Aden port deal with the Dubai Ports World corporation. Dubai Ports World has not been meeting targets for growth in south Yemen's Aden, a city that is strategically located between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. Getting a new owner with an ambitious vision could restore Aden's port to its former glory, and provide much needed revenue." 

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

The advent of “informal” Islamists

The gray-bearded sheikh has appealed to his presidential candidate counterparts to join him at a press conference to be held in his regular mosque. While his contenders eluded, the sheikh stood amid hundreds of his followers and supporters to protest and chant against the referral of a group of civilians to the military court. Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the 51-year-old veteran Islamist, has compellingly captivated his followers by his presidential and charismatic merits, at least rhetorically. Clearly, Abu Ismail's mosque-show was a shrewd attempt to kick off his presidential campaign. However, it also reflects how the new "informal" Islamists perceive politics. For them, all politics is retail.

The fragmentation of the Islamist scene in Egypt is a hallmark characteristic of the post-Hosni Mubarak era. After stagnation and dominance by one force, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the Islamist scene has been drastically reshaped. More than 15 Islamists parties have officially or unofficially emerged after the revolution. Myriad Islamists have overwhelmed the public sphere freely and painlessly. And a parliament dominated by Islamists is in commission. It seems the lure of politics has immersed Islamists.

However, while many are preoccupied by the "rise" of the Muslim Brothers and the ultra-conservative Salafis, "informal" Islamists are stepping into politics vigorously and freely. They are not officially affiliated with any Islamist movement. Nor are they keen to establish their own organizations. Ironically, they shunned joining any of the new Islamists parties. Moreover, whereas "formal" Islamists, for example, the MB, ad-Dawa al-Salafiyya, and ex-Jihadists, rushed to formal politics, "informal" Islamists prefer to play outside the official framework. They vividly operate in the new and expansive religious market that has flourished in Egypt since the revolution.

The umbrella of "informal" Islamists is wide-ranging. It encompasses the full spectrum of religious actors. Starting from the classical Salafi sheikhs, including the popular preachers Mohamed Hassan, Mohamed Hussien Yakub, and Abu Ishaq al-Howini, to the dissents of the MB, such as the well-known Islamist and presidential candidate Abdel Moniem Abuolfotouh, to independent Islamists, such as the Qatari-based sheikh Yussif al-Qaradawi and the lawyer and Islamic intellectual Mohamed Selim al-Awa, "informal" Islamists are dominating the new public sphere in Egypt after the revolution. All are outspoken, charismatic, and influential preachers. Hence their followers and supporters are inestimable.

There are three significant distinctions between "formal" and "informal" Islamists. First, while "formal" Islamists rely heavily on their organizational structures for outreach, "informal" Islamists capitalize on social networks (kinship, friendships, families, etc.) as well as establishing themselves in the virtual sphere (internet, Facebook, the media, etc.) to broaden their audience. Hence they are free from organizational burdens and responsibilities.

Second, whereas the former are pervasive in the low and low-middle classes, the latter are a crosscutting phenomenon. They have followers from different social strata; urban and rural, poor and rich, schools and universities, etc. For them, street vendors are important as well as university professors.

Third, while "formal" Islamists espouse the conventional approach of "bottom-up" efforts to accomplish their agenda, "informal" Islamists reversed the course and seek to penetrate the state. They do not aim to Islamize individuals or reshape society but rather to empower them in the face of power-holders. More importantly, they target the members of "formal" Islamist organizations. Hence, they embody a real concern for "formal" Islamists such as the case of Abuolfotouh with the MB and Abu Ismail with the Salafi al-Nour Party.

However, the most interesting part in the story is yet to come. The next Egyptian president could potentially be an "informal" Islamist. At this point, three such heavyweights are running for the office. Abuolfotouh, Abu Ismail, and al-Awa have launched their campaigns to secure the endorsement of the required 30 members of parliament or 30,000 people in at least 15 of Egypt's 18 provinces in order to run.

The first is an iconic Islamist leader with a remarkable political presence. His genuine and distinctive discourse has made him one of the most influential Islamists in Egypt over the past three decades. He combines an ideological mosaic of Islamic, liberal, and leftist views that resonate with various spectators. Since he broke with the MB last May, he became more powerful and influential among young Egyptians particularly Islamists who view  him as the "Erdogan" of Egypt, as one recently told me. Moreover, for many liberals and leftists, Abuolfotouh became the "revolution candidate" after the withdrawal of Mohamed ElBaradei from the presidential race.

As for Abu Ismail, he embodies a very significant case of "informal" Islamism. On one hand, he is not officially a member of any Islamist movement. He plays on the divide lines between the MB and Salafists. Thus, he employs his preceding "unofficial" links with the MB to get their grassroots support. At the same time, he utilizes his Salafi appearance and discourse to attract Salafist constituencies. On the other hand, Abu Ismail leapt into politics after the revolution through his antagonistic, yet useless, rhetoric against the military. Moreover, Abu Ismail invests greatly in the Salafi media to reach his supporters. His simplistic and populist discourse resonates with many Egyptians who view religion as vehicle for change.

Nevertheless, al-Awa is the most visible brand of "informal" Islamist. Over the past two decades, he established himself as an intellectual Islamist. He is one of the architects of "wasatiyya," or the centrism school of thought. Hence his discourse reverberates with the middle and upper-middle classes. Until recently he was a highly respected figure among Islamists before he discredited himself by siding with the junta at some occasions. In addition to his oratorical skills, he has an extraordinary political intuition and he can play all cards at the same time. Despite his informal links with "formal" Islamists (e.g. the MB and al-Wasat Party), he is keen to portray himself as an "Islamic" thinker. The appeal of al-Awa originates not only from his appearance as an "elegant" upper-middle class gentleman but also from his intellectual credentials. His outstanding writings on Islam and Muslim issues exemplify a vital source for all Islamists. However, his political stance and tactics are precarious and counterproductive. While appealing to the public, he is bargaining with the military which has put his credibility at stake.

Paradoxically, the relationship among "informal" Islamists is loose and vague. Although they are profoundly rivals, they tend to act as buddies and partners. Each of them is intensely campaigning to get the presidential ticket. Even "informal" Islamists who are not running for the presidency are contesting to get authority over the public sphere. All together they usher a new era in Islamist politics that can be labeled "post-Institutional" Islamism.

Khalil al-Anani is a Scholar at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute. He can be reached at k.m.ibrahim@durham.ac.uk.

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