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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

First and perhaps foremost, Bashar is inept. The cool, calculating rule of his father, Hafez al-Assad, has given way to the blundering of a young leader who has galvanized anti-Syrian sentiment even among traditionally pro-Syrian Lebanese. Say what you will about Iran's ruling clerics--they are a nasty collection of highly ideological power politicians willing to deploy terrorism at home and abroad whenever necessary--they are not fond of expending their own prestige and power on behalf of juveniles, especially when the odds are they would lose. Iran probably wouldn't mind seeing Bashar al-Assad fall from power in a palace coup--not an unlikely possibility if Syria gets forced out of Lebanon. As long as the Alawite clan (a heretical branch of Shiite Islam that has dominated Syria's Baath party) stays in power, the Iranians aren't likely to become too worried.

And the events in Lebanon don't necessarily spell disaster for the Syrians. What Thomas Friedman called the "Hama rules"--the willingness to slaughter regime opponents by the thousands, as Hafez al-Assad did in the town of Hama in 1982--still hold, and the Alawite regime appears cohesive enough to do this without hesitation. The Syrian Sunni desire for revenge against the minority Alawites is easily enough to ensure Alawite solidarity. The Sunnis, who believe they have always had the historic right to rule Syria, would probably not show the same consideration that Iraqi Shia have so far shown their former Baathist tormentors. It is possible that the democratic ethic may be growing among Syria's Sunni Arab population--Syria's awful tyranny, like Baathist Iraq's, can teach well the benefits of restraining state power--but that won't matter much against a savage regime with a ferocious internal security service and elite military units capable of artillery barrages against civilians.

Also, Lebanon has seen some form of democracy. Lebanon has never been fully of the Arab world--it is historically, religiously, culturally, and geographically a special place--and the idea of a democratic Lebanon probably isn't nearly as scary to the Middle East's despots as is the idea of a democratic Iraq or Egypt. (A Palestinian democracy has a bit of the same quality about it--Palestinians have existed in a surreal world for decades, where their triumphs and tragedies don't relate well to the day-to-day lives and local political frustrations of most Arabs.) Iran's clerics, or Syria's Alawites, or the Saudi princes, or the Mubarak family in Egypt don't necessarily view the return of Lebanese democracy as a dagger aimed at them. It is something they could live with--a price worth paying to eliminate from among them a damaging, Paris-Washington-uniting incompetent like Bashar al-Assad.

Unless Iran's clerical regime views the liberation of Lebanon as a lethal defeat for Hezbollah--and the organization's chief, Hassan Nasrallah, has been rhetorically fence-sitting about joining or damning the Christian and Sunni opposition to the Syrians--then the odds are good that the Syrians will withdraw. One can appreciate why the Lebanese youth cannot stop praising "Ju-Ju," an affectionate Arabic take on "George." They are willing to admit easily what comes much harder to many in Congress and in Washington's Democratic think tanks.

Syria--Drive them out of Lebanon but don't spend much time or effort trying to tighten the noose around the Baathist Alawites. The state is not as Orwellian as was Saddam Hussein's, but the ethnic and religious dynamics of its regime will make regime solidarity very difficult to overcome. However, if the Syrian Baathists are aiding the Iraqi Baathists to the extent that the Bush administration alleges--and the allegations appear solid--the United States ought to strike militarily. If American and Iraqi lives are being lost because of Bashar al-Assad's support of Iraqi Baathists in his country, then the Bush administration is being tactically and strategically negligent in not retaliating. This doesn't mean the United States should invade Syria. But Syrian intelligence and military bases--and any locales where Assad is hosting Iraqi insurgents--are legitimate targets for air and special-ops raids. It is possible that such limited military strikes could threaten the stability of the Alawite dictatorship, allowing an opportunity for a Sunni civilian and military opposition to gain ground.

But the administration shouldn't bank on the democratic aftershocks of Iraq shaking Syria itself. It might happen. A good rule of thumb is that an appreciation for democracy has become more widespread in the Arab world than the American and European "realist" crowd would have us believe. But the best we should hope and plan for is an eventual cracking of Alawite power, allowing for a return of Sunni rule. With the Sunnis in charge, political evolution has some chance, particularly if the United States starts to focus its democratizing attention on the country in the Arab world that matters most--Egypt.

Egypt--Democratizing Egypt is what President Bush's post-9/11 "forward strategy of freedom" is all about. End the nexus between tyranny and Islamic extremism in the lower Nile Valley--the perverse pattern of Egyptian dictators Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak fueling anti-American Islamic militancy through both suppression and support--and one of the two most important intellectual breeding grounds for bin Ladenism (Saudi Arabia is the other) will turn into a laboratory where both secular and fundamentalist Sunni Muslims can make their case democratically. If Egypt doesn't democratize, bin Ladenism will not end. The hatred for American-supported dictators will continue to grow; the Muslim Brotherhood, the fount of all Sunni fundamentalists, will not be able to evolve politically further, moving devout Sunnis from Koranic shibboleths to democratically derived legislation that will be seen by most Islamic activists as both legitimate and at odds with the Muslim Holy Law.

Since Iraq, President Mubarak, who used to equate democracy with "chaos," sees a need for "more freedom and democracy" in Egypt. The odds are excellent he is actually trying to devise a system whereby, with less friction, he continues in power and the chances of succession for his son increase. But that doesn't mean the United States shouldn't take advantage of Mubarak's opening. If Mubarak thinks Egypt is ready for more democracy and freedom, then far be it from the United States not to take him at his word. Now is the time to announce that American aid to Egypt is henceforth conditioned on democratic progress. Mubarak cheats, the aid is cut. Mubarak cheats a lot, the aid ends. We should not allow Mubarak to scare us again with the specter of Islamic extremism. Fear of another Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini--who, by the way, didn't come to power democratically--has too long paralyzed our thinking about Egypt.

As has Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. Many supporters of Israel in the United States have become de facto backers of dictatorship in Egypt because they fear the Islamist boogeyman. They want to believe that the system in Egypt can liberalize--even though nowhere in the Arab world have we yet seen an Ataturkist evolution. Indeed, the evolution of Arab dictatorship has been in the opposite direction, toward the nexus that gave us bin Ladenism and 9/11. They really don't want to give fundamentalists a chance to compete in elections; they want "progressive Muslims" to somehow be nourished--to spring more or less full-grown from the head of Mubarak, as did Athena from Zeus. They would rather not reflect too long on the history of democratic Christendom--that you don't get to arrive at Thomas Jefferson unless you first pass through Martin Luther. But Natan Sharansky is right: Democracy, sooner not later, is the only way out. The liberal critics of the Bush administration's democracy promotion have usually been cranky and unfair--it's pretty hard to envision the region's democrats, particularly those on the front lines in Iraq and Lebanon, cheering John Kerry--but they may soon have a point. In the not too distant future, Washington is going to have to break with the Mubarak regime. If we don't, bin Laden's jihadist call, and not the shouts for "Ju-Ju," will be the summons with lasting appeal.

Saudi Arabia--Continue to push the democratic agenda publicly in the Arabian peninsula. The rather pathetic Saudi attempt to defuse democratic ferment at home and the Bush administration's growing anti-Saudi attitude by holding highly restricted municipal elections is likely to do the opposite of what the royal family intended. The Shiites of the Eastern Province--where most of Saudi Arabia's oil is located--may, as the Arab Shiites of Iraq continue to advance democratically, become more inclined to protest. The turnout for the municipal elections clearly showed that the Shiites in the Eastern Province didn't consider the exercise a joke (as was the case among many Sunnis).

The Wahhabi clerical establishment, the religious backbone of Saudi power, may become more inclined to use older, violent means to oppress the Shiites. Washington should rhetorically preempt the issue, by declaring loudly and often that it favors modern democracy in Saudi Arabia, where minority rights are protected. We would be wise not to assume that the Saudi royal family is more "modern" than the people of the country. It may well be more "modern" than the average Wahhabi in the Najd region, the heartland of Wahhabi power. But Saudi Arabia is much larger than the Najd.

It is possible that a variation of the Iranian experience has been at work in Saudi Arabia, that Saudi-Wahhabi power has distanced an ever greater number of people from the Saudis' rigorous fusion of religion and state. Saudi Arabia is an odd place, with a large number of people permeated with Western ways. Sometimes that fuels Islamic militancy. Sometimes it does the opposite. Both may be happening in Arabia. In either case, we know for certain that Saudi Arabia was the cradle of bin Ladenism. There is scant evidence to suggest that the Wahhabi establishment has changed its spots (philosophically it can't). The Wahhabis should have to compete for their flock. Inside the country and out, the United States should be relentlessly pushing for democracy. As in Egypt, we should increasingly tie government-to-government relations and joint programs directly to Saudi progress with real national elections.

Algeria and Tunisia--North Africa has traditionally been ignored by the Americans. It shouldn't be. It would be a good test of France's desire to advance democratic change in the Middle East to see if Paris would rhetorically join the United States in energetically encouraging democracy in both countries. Tunisia has an increasingly lively democratic culture developing on the Internet in the form of blogs and virtual publications, both inside and outside the country. Stealing a page from Hosni Mubarak's playbook, President Zine el Abidine ben Ali recently invited Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Tunisia in a crude (but with the Egyptians effective) effort to get on America's good side through the Israelis. Ben Ali read the tea leaves after the January 30 election and decided to preempt.

The Bush administration should relentlessly thump ben Ali--criticize his dictatorship whenever and wherever possible. Since ben Ali, like Mubarak, has recently discovered the damage the lack of democracy has done to the Arab world, Washington could begin simply by using his words against him. Tunisia, like Algeria, is hardly a strategically critical country for the United States. There are no airfields there that we absolutely must use to continue the war on terror. All official dealings with these two states should be premised on their governments' support of democratic reform. And the Bush administration would be wise to revisit the position of Algeria in the Arab world. Scarred by the civil war of the early 1990s, Algerians are probably a much wiser people than they were when Islamists first began to challenge the corrupt military dictatorship.

Algeria's highly Westernized young would probably embrace the chance to remove the military dictatorship over them--if they had some possibility of doing so without confronting the official black ninjas who rival the throat-slitting Islamic militants in savagery. Algeria's failed experiment with democracy in the 1990s was closely watched in the Muslim world, particularly among fundamentalists. If Algeria were to get back on track and follow through with democratic reforms, the impact on the region, and on the millions of Algerians who live in Europe, would likely be significant.

Iran--Don't compromise the democratic future of the country by trying to buy the mullahs' nuclear goodwill. Democracy in Iran is the key to ending that country's long embrace of terrorism. And if there is a nationalist desire in Iran to have nuclear weapons (we only know for sure there is a clerical will to have these arms), then talking with a democracy about them is entirely different from trying to appease a dictatorship, which is what the French, British, Germans, and certain quarters at the State Department and the National Security Council would like to do. One can live with a nuclear-armed democracy. The Bush administration should realize that the American policy of containment has helped create the most pro-American Muslim population in the Middle East. We should be patient. Let Iraq's Shia, in particular Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani's democratic opinions and actions, have their effect.

Iraq--Remember that January 30 was only the first democratic wave to come out of that country. If Iraq doesn't go off the rails--and the odds are very good that the Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis will find workable democratic compromises--there will be more election aftershocks issuing from Mesopotamia, probably of a magnitude greater than January 30. The trial of Saddam Hussein is coming. There are many things the administration should do to exploit the people power of Iraq, but first and foremost is an Iraqi C-SPAN controlled by Iraqis. There is a large audience in the Arab world, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, just waiting to see the next episode from Baghdad. Let the millions watch Saddam's trial live. Republicans and Democrats who believe in spreading democracy in the Muslim Middle East shouldn't disappoint these hungry viewers. Perhaps Osama bin Laden will also watch and see the end of his dreams.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. He is the author of The Islamic Paradox: Shiite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists, and the Coming of Arab Democracy.