Wednesday, February 23, 2011

American Pundits and Policymakers Don’t Understand that Democracy Isn’t Necessarily More Moderate

By Barry Rubin

What must be written in order to promote one’s career in Washington or popularity in the Western world, and what must be written in order to understand the Middle East are two very different things.

Consider the following theme, as expressed by a president, a former secretary of state, and a leading pundit. I could have added dozens of other examples including newspaper editorials. All agree on a certain principle that makes sense in established Western democracies (and thus appeals to their audiences) but is totally at variance with history and reality in the Middle East.

The theme is this: The people are inevitably moderate. They are mainly concerned with material well-being (fixing pot-holes in the street, collecting garbage, providing good schools and jobs) that thus makes it impossible to have a radical or ideologically driven government. Thus, if radicals do take power in a country they will inevitably become more moderate.

In fact, every example shows the exact opposite. A brief list of forces that weren’t moderated by taking power include: the Free Officers in Egypt, 1952; the Ba’th party in Syria, 1963 and in Iraq, 1968; Iran’s Islamist revolution of 1979; the Taliban in Afghanistan; Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority starting in 1994; and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. That is a very partial list and we can add to that Hizballah’s new regime in Lebanon, the Sudan, and others.

But this isn’t what we’re told by people who cannot account for all of those real-world examples. Former Secretary of State C. Rice:

“The Brotherhood…should be forced to defend their vision for Egypt. Do they seek the imposition of sharia law? Do they intend a future of suicide bombings and violent resistance to the existence of Israel? Will they use Iran as a political model? Al-Qaeda? Where will Egypt find jobs for its people? Do they expect to improve the lives of Egyptians cut off from the international community through policies designed to destabilize the Middle East?”

Rice’s implication is that of course Islamists cannot make attractive arguments. But what if no government of Egypt can raise living standards because the country lacks resources and money? Then sharia law at home and suicide bombings abroad sound attractive. If Rice knew anything about Egypt—and this statement reveals she doesn’t—she would know that Iran and al-Qaeda are not factors on the agenda for the Brotherhood. Oh, and where will jobs come from? The government will create them, which means a statist Egypt is pretty inevitable.

By the way, if one has any doubts about Rice knowing anything about Egypt, she writes: “Egypt's institutions are stronger and its secularism deeper” than Iran before its revolution. Actually, I think the truth is the exact opposite. Egypt is an extremely religious country.

Next, as the Washington Post put it: President Obama warned Middle Eastern nations, including longtime U.S. allies, that they need to "get out ahead" of surging aspirations for democracy.

One of the most basic factors in Middle East politics is that precisely when people think the government is weak and giving way, they escalate demands. This is what happened in Iran in 1978 and in Egypt now. If governments don’t show a strong face, they can disintegrate. All the leaders who hate America understand this principle. If the army had been willing to put down demonstrations from the start, there would have been no revolution in Egypt. And that’s why there will be no revolution in Iran or Syria.

The idea that the popular is always the more moderate fails to comprehend a great deal of world history.

This is why nonsense like this by Thomas Friedman is dangerously false:

"The Arab tyrants, precisely because they were illegitimate, were the ones who fed their people hatred of Israel as a diversion. If Israel could finalize a deal with the Palestinians, it will find that a more democratic Arab world is a more stable partner. Not because everyone will suddenly love Israel (they won’t). But because the voices that would continue calling for conflict would have legitimate competition, and democratically elected leaders will have to be much more responsive to their people’s priorities, which are for more schools not wars."

Now nobody has written more than I have--in books like The Long War for Freedom, The Tragedy of the Middle East--about how this system worked. Yet the "voices that would continue calling for conflict" would include Hamas and a large portion of Fatah. Indeed--and read this carefully--the most obvious successor to Mahmoud Abbas as leader of the Palestinian Authority is Muhammad Ghaneim, who opposes any deal with Israel and would tear up any such agreement made by Abbas.

Logic has nothing to do with how people write about these issues. Hasn't the "Palestine Papers" affair once again shown how angry is the reaction to even the slightest compromise with Israel? The head of the negotiations' unit, who dared suggest some concessions, had to resign. Isn’t it democratic Egypt, not autocratic Egypt, threatening to abrogate the treaty with Israel? Of course. Would there be any possibility of a democratic Jordan, after overthrowing the monarchy, keeping their treaty with Israel? Of course not.

Let us assume for the moment that the peace treaty Israel and Lebanon came close to signing in 1982 was completed. Would the Hizballah-dominated regime, that came to power in free elections, abrogate that treaty? Of course it would.

If democracy is established in Arabic-speaking states there will be Islamist, leftist, and radical nationalist parties that will use demagoguery to get votes. In no Arabic-speaking country is there a strong liberal party, and that includes places where there is a relatively open political system like Kuwait, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include Islamic Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics and The Muslim Brotherhood (Palgrave-Macmillan); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, a study of Arab reform movements (Wiley). GLORIA Center site: His blog, Rubin Reports,

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