The Magazine

What Hath Ju-Ju Wrought!

From the March 14, 2005 issue: In the Middle East, the democratic genie is out of the bottle.

Mar 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 24 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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HAVE THE IRAQI ELECTIONS PRODUCED a democratic earthquake that has changed forever the fundamental political dynamics in the Muslim Middle East? Only the culturally deaf, dumb, and blind--for example, Michigan's Democratic senator Carl Levin--can't see what George W. Bush's war against Saddam Hussein has wrought. The issue is not whether the basic understanding of contemporary Muslim political legitimacy has been overturned--it has--but how forcefully the regimes in place will resist the growing Muslim democratic ethic.

And the crucial question for the United States is whether the Bush administration will realize that the most consequential regimes in place--Hosni Mubarak's in Egypt, the Saudi dynasty in Arabia, the military junta in Algeria, and the theocracy in Iran--probably won't evolve without some internal violence. The Bush administration ought to be prepared to encourage or coerce these regimes into changing sooner, not later. What the United States should fear most is not rapid change--the specter of the fallen shah of Iran will surely rise in many minds--but the agonizing, dogged resistance of dictatorship. (Would that the United States had understood in 1971, after the shah's delusional and obscenely expensive celebration of 2,500 years of Persian kingship, that Washington had an increasingly sclerotic, corrupt autocracy confronting perhaps the most intellectually dynamic and angry society in the Middle East.)

Although it is now beyond doubt that President Bush is philosophically a Reaganite--holding, that is, that the United States' self-defense is inextricably connected to the expansion and protection of democracy--many within his administration share Europe's overriding concerns about "stability" in the region. And even among Reaganites, it's not hard to find those who are profoundly anxious about Muslim fundamentalists becoming potentially powerful players if free elections were actually held in the Arab world. The Bush administration has not yet worked out a grand strategy of democratization: Clear, simple principles applied with as much consistency as practicable would be an entirely adequate approach. Events are likely to make Elliott Abrams's democracy-promotion job on the National Security Council perhaps the most critical office to President Bush. Iraq has unleashed a wave of pent-up frustration and anger against the status quo throughout the region. The clever dictators, like Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine el Abidine ben Ali, will try to preempt it by fixing multiparty elections and adopting pro-American/pro-Israeli foreign policy initiatives. The Bush administration will likely get hit from several directions at once, as the peoples of the Middle East and their rulers continue to react to what started on January 30, 2005.

Let's take a quick tour d'horizon and see where we are.

Lebanon--This may be the most promising--though it may not be the most important--aftershock of the January 30 elections. Syria is obviously in trouble in Lebanon. The assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, coming so soon after Arabic satellite television beamed astonishing pictures of Iraqis risking their lives to vote, ignited long-simmering, anti-Syrian animosity among the Lebanese Christian and Sunni communities. (There may well be a Lebanese who doesn't believe Hariri was murdered by Syria's ruler Bashar al-Assad, but what is striking about the Lebanese rumor mill--one of the most energetic in the Middle East--is how unified the view is on Syrian culpability.) The most urgent question now is whether the Lebanese Shiite community, specifically the Amal and Hezbollah political movements, will back the Sunnis and the Christians in their call for Syria's ejection. Both organizations have substantial ties to Iran--Hezbollah is revolutionary Iran's only true child and remains the clerical regime's only foreign-policy success--and would be petrified of completely losing Tehran's support. It remains unclear what the Lebanese Shia are going to do, but if one had to bet, the odds are decent that Amal and Hezbollah will not break from the Lebanese Christian and Sunni communities.

As the Lebanese-American scholar Fouad Ajami regularly points out, the Lebanese Shia as a people do not want to be left behind in the country. If the vast majority of the other Lebanese have decisively broken with Syria--and they have--then the Shia will not separate themselves from their countrymen. This is even more true if clerical Iran, Hezbollah's mother ship, does not ride to the rescue of Bashar al-Assad. And there is reason to hope this will not be the case.