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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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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.