1989 in the Muslim World?

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On December 17, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, driven to desperation by mistreatment at the hands of petty officialdom, drenched his body with gasoline (or paint thinner, according to some accounts) and set himself alight. His death touched off a chain reaction in much of the Muslim world. Protestors took to the streets of Tunis, and their protests culminated in a popular revolution that ousted the country’s corrupt president. The tumult spread to Egypt where, remarkably, a massive yet largely peaceful protest movement succeeded in forcing Hosni Mubarak, who for 30 years had ruled the land like a pharaoh, to step down. At this moment street protests and violence are occurring in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, and Iran — an upheaval reminiscent of that which swept Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Will the outcome be the same? Are the Middle East and North Africa on the verge of changes that will transform the lives of the people living there? Americans cannot but hope that the early promise of this revolution will be sustained. But I would sound a note of caution. There are reasons to believe that the events we are witnessing represent a false dawn.

That a region-wide conflagration had to come at some point was obvious, though exactly when it would occur no one knew. Demographics (a major youth bulge exists in all the countries in tumult), economics (the region is plagued by high long-term unemployment and soaring food prices), and government corruption provided the tinder that allowed Bouazizi’s fire to spread. Conditions in the Middle East are as backward and absurd as those that prevailed in Eastern Europe in 1989. But Eastern Europe’s problems were in a sense artificial, caused by the warped imperatives of Marxism-Leninism. The problems of the Muslim world are more fundamental.

 Although Iran, the one non-Arab nation involved, has a democratic tradition of sorts (no thanks to the US, which overthrew a democratic government there in 1953), the Arab world does not. Despite the hopes and dreams of foreign policy liberals in the West, there is no evidence to indicate that the Arab peoples have any talent for democracy. Indeed, history seems to show that the reverse is true. Egypt, the political and cultural center of the Arab world, will be the test. Some observers believe that the Egyptian middle class, educated and secular to the extent that it is largely immune to the lure of radical Islamism, will take the nation into a liberal democratic future. But given the abject poverty of the Egyptian masses (living on two dollars a day, as we were reminded again and again during the uprising), and the country’s apparent aversion to liberal values (i.e., free markets and functional democracy), this seems very doubtful indeed. East Germany was pulled up from dictatorship and poverty by rich West Germany, with the latter expending a vast amount of wealth in the process. Who will be Egypt’s mentor and bankroller? The US? Not likely, given the state of our economy and the massive federal budget deficit — not to mention the fact that Egyptians will likely spurn our advice and even our money if any strings are attached. The only nation with enough wealth available to prop up Egypt economically is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But we may take it as certain that the Saudis have no desire to see their neighbor become a thriving democracy. The Egyptians will have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, something they have never demonstrated an ability to do. Should they fail, the lure of Islamism will be strong and perhaps irresistible.

Eastern Europe’s problems in 1989 were in a sense artificial, caused by the warped imperatives of Marxism-Leninism. The problems of the Muslim world are more fundamental.

Final victory for the protestors in Egypt came about not as a result of their undoubted courage and determination, but because the Egyptian Army refused to stage a Tiananmen Square. That they refrained from doing so was the result, in part, of US “advice” to exercise restraint. The American and Egyptian militaries have maintained close ties since the 1970s. Egyptian officers attend US military schools and training courses, and Egyptian forces are equipped with US weapons. The relationship is so close that the US has permitted production of the M1 battle tank on Egyptian soil.

The US, therefore, has leverage with the Egyptian military. At the same time, we must listen to what that military says, for maintenance of the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty remains the top priority of US policy in the Middle East. Egypt is the irreplaceable linchpin of America’s Middle East strategy. If the transition to democracy in Egypt fails from the outset or is derailed by democracy’s inability to cope with the country’s massive economic and social problems, look for the Egyptian army to take a hand. And don’t be surprised if the US backs any action the army may take, even if it comes to the establishment of a new dictatorship. The US must retain Egypt within the orbit of its influence, or find its entire Middle East policy ruined.

There remains a third possibility beyond a successful transition to democracy or a reversion to military dictatorship — a recurrence of the events witnessed in Iran in 1979. This possibility has been pooh-poohed by some experts, who are convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928 and after the army the largest and best organized actor in Egypt) is neither strong enough nor willing to impose an Islamic regime. The Brotherhood itself has done much to dampen fears, denying that it harbors ambitions to remake Egypt and even going so far as to promise not to field a candidate in the next presidential election. But consider this: on February 18 the radical Sunni cleric Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who had been forbidden to preach in Egypt for 50 years, and who supports attacks on both Israel and US forces in Iraq, spoke to over a million people (as estimated by the New York Times) gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He exhorted them to demand of the army that it clear out all holdovers from the Mubarak regime and prepare the way for a new government forthwith. And he urged Egyptians to keep up the pressure until all their demands are met.

Needless to say, such a forcing of the pace will lead to disappointment, more protests, and perhaps a move by the army to “restore order.” Already the army has warned that the country must get back to work; indeed, anything like permanent revolution in Egypt will mean bankruptcy for the Egyptian state. If chaos rather than order results, and the army begins to disintegrate, with conscripts deserting or joining the ranks of the Brotherhood, nothing will stand between the Islamists and their achievement of power in the state. And an Islamist regime would undoubtedly, sooner or later, turn Egyptians’ frustrations outward against Israel and the US. The US would then be effectively shut out of the Middle East (unless it could somehow maintain a precarious position on the Arabian peninsula), while Israel, already facing the demographic challenge of a Palestinian birth rate far higher than that of its Jewish inhabitants, would find itself surrounded once again by hostile states, now motivated by religious fanaticism. One can play out this scenario in various ways, none of which ends well for the US or Israel.

There is no evidence to indicate that the Arab peoples have any talent for democracy.

To the west of Egypt lies Tunisia, the birthplace of revolution, and its neighbors Libya and Algeria, both of which have experienced major unrest. Libya is to an extent a special case, being a collection of tribes rather than a true nation state. As of this writing civil war is raging there between supporters of the regime and rebels. Even the armed forces are divided. It is difficult to predict a winner at this point; however, the longer the fighting continues, the more the possibility of radical Islamists gaining a foothold increases. Recall that in the 1990s Islamists won free elections in Algeria, only to be prevented from taking office by the army. Throughout North Africa the armed forces are the main, or sole, bulwark against radical Islamism. Even in Tunisia, which thanks to French influence has what most of us would regard as a normal attitude toward alcohol and sex, riots have broken out in which fanatical Muslims sought to close down brothels and ransack bars.

But North Africa west of Egypt remains, for the US (though not Western Europe), a sideshow. It is to the east, in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region, that events of world-historical importance are being played out. The principal centers of events here are Iran and, surprisingly, tiny Bahrain.

Iran of course is the other great and ancient civilization besides Egypt in the Middle East. It has more of a democratic tradition than any country south of Turkey, a sizable middle class, and the potential to build a thriving economy based on more than its immense oil and gas reserves. Its peoples are not Arabs but belong to various ethnic groups, with Persians making up a slim majority. The vast majority of its citizens are followers of the Shia sect of Islam, whereas in Egypt the people are Sunni. Since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Iran has been under Islamist rule. The Iranian revolution was a delayed reaction to the Anglo-American coup of 1953, which overthrew a democratic government and restored the Shah to power. But for that cardinal Anglo-Saxon sin, Iran might today be a rock of pro-Western stability in one of the most important regions of the world. Instead, it is the West’s most dangerous adversary this side of China.

The tide of history is undergoing a major turn. The whole edifice of Western and especially American policy in the Middle East is crumbling.

In 2009 pro-democracy activists took on the Iranian regime after an election that was widely (though not universally) perceived as fraudulent. They were crushed. In the wake of Egypt, street protests once again sprang up. It is believed in some quarters that these protests mark the death knell of the Islamist order in Iran. On the February 20 edition of Fareed Zakaria’s CNN talk show, the ubiquitous (and apparently immortal) George Soros declared that the Iranian regime would be swept from power within a year. This seems to me a fundamental misreading of the situation. The Revolutionary Guards Corps, the real power in Iran, is as entrenched as the People’s Liberation Army in China. It has the means to crush any popular revolt, and will do so.

The uprisings in the Arab countries should be seen as anti-Western and anti-American (for who supported the autocrats? and who will be blamed if the revolutions don’t deliver democracy and prosperity?), and therefore helpful to the Iranian cause. Iran will reach out to Islamists in the Arab world with a message of unity against the common enemies, America and Israel. Such an appeal will have a potent effect on people looking to blame their problems on malevolent outside forces. In February, for the first time since the overthrow of the Shah, Egypt allowed Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal (something Egypt could not legally prevent in any case, but nevertheless a definite straw in the wind).

Watch Bahrain to see which way the tide turns. This small Persian Gulf nation has a Sunni ruling family but a majority Shia population. So far, the protests there have been contained, but if the Shia chase out the rulers, Iranian influence will be at the very doorstep of Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where the oilfields lie, is connected to Bahrain by a causeway. And its population is overwhelmingly Shia.)

Throughout North Africa the armed forces are the main, or sole, bulwark against radical Islamism.

The Saudis are very, very nervous. They have been urging the Bahrainis to take a hard line with the protestors, while at the same time announcing new giveaways of money for the average man in their own country. How secure the House of Saud really is remains to be seen, of course, but I would point to the fact that more jihadists come out of Saudi Arabia than any other Arab country. If Bahrain goes, and a Sadrist, pro-Iranian regime emerges in Iraq (as may very well happen in time — see my January 27article, “The Return of Moktada”), Saudi Arabia is probably doomed. At a minimum, the Eastern Province and its oil riches will be the target of Iranian pan-Shia propaganda and subversion. How the Saudis and the US will cope with such a situation appears problematical to say the least.

Even if the pro-Saudi ruling family holds on for the time being in Bahrain, one cannot but think that the tide of history is undergoing a major turn. The whole edifice of Western and especially American policy in the Middle East is crumbling. The majority of the peoples in the region have no love for us, or any strong interests in common with the Western world. We are witnessing not a liberation of the peoples as in 1989, but the end of a neocolonial epoch that began with the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. In terms of economic impact, and particularly regarding energy, this will have a profound effect on an America already suffering from severe recession and catastrophic fiscal problems. And the effect on Israel will be even worse.

The history of revolution in countries with little or no tradition of self-government is instructive. Moderates overthrow oppressive autocrats, only to be removed by more ruthless and better organized actors — actors who are invariably more oppressive and murderous than the original autocrats. Robespierre, Lenin, Mao, Khomeini are the winners; the moderates are exterminated and the people are worse off than ever. When possible, popular discontent is then deflected upon an external enemy, as when the French Revolutionary armies swept over Western Europe. Such a future may await the West in the Middle East.




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Comments

Fred Mora

I share your vision of the Arab world. Contrary to a lot of ecstatic reports in the Western press, I think that revolutions in North Africa will bring not democracy, but oppression at the hand of Islamic regimes. Remember the Shah and how the mainstream media celebrated his toppling.

I'd like to add a thought on Egypt. From what I read, the Egyptian army didn't support ex-general Mubarak because he had designated his non-military son to be his successor. The army wants power to be held by one of its own. By refusing to contain the insurrection, they eliminated that threat and got back into the effective seat of power. Disclaimer: I don't have personal knowledge of the situation, I just think the explanation makes more sense than any other I heard. Occam's razor and all.

Thank you again for this good analysis.

Jon Harrison

I don't know if there's any truth in the idea that the Egyptian Army failed to protect Mubarak because it wanted one of its own in power after he left. I tend to think they were more concerned about world opinion, in addition to which they simply did not want to shoot down their own people in the streets. They are not monsters, in my view.

While I'm sure they desire a government that responds to their agenda, I'm not at all sure they want to exercise political power directly. Given the enormous problems of Egypt, government by general would be an unwanted burden, I would think.

In any case thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Nathan Barton

Jon, thank you for an excellent and realistic look at the situation. I've been pointing out for several weeks that the rose-colored glasses worn by too many libertarians when viewing the last month in North Africa and Southwest Asia are blinding them to the realities.

The Egyptian military has been ruling indirectly in Egypt since 1952; as you point out, they are not monsters but also do not want to rule directly. They were unwilling, but saw the necessity, of putting one of their own (Mubarak) out to pasture to keep the situation from turning into a nightmare: the issue of Mubarak Jr. just made it easier to do what they saw was necessary. They face a situation not that dissimilar from what the militaries in Turkey, Algeria, and Pakistan face: trying to skate on that razor-edge between Islamists and Assad-Saddam style rule. Ultimately, I don't think that they can win: like the military in Sudan and Iran, they will slip and fall: the choices are the usual revolutionary outcome as seen in Iran (or Soviet Russia or France or China) or the chaos of Sudan.
Your description of Libya as a collection of tribes is apt. But we must keep in mind that in ALL Arab societies - even Egypt - the tribes are a very large part of the political matrix, and the tribalism of the people is one reason that Muslims (and in particular the Arabs for whom Islam was designed) are not well-suited for either democratic or republican forms of government and institutions. In fact, as shown in Europe today and Egypt 1300 years ago, Islam strengthens and promotes tribalism, and this in turn impacts every Arab nation to a frightening degree.

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