The Magazine

The Wave Continues

The people of the Middle East really want to choose their leaders.

Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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It is still striking, two months into the Great Arab Rebellion, how timorously many Westerners greet the region-wide uprising. Recognizing that democratic aspirations may be only a small factor in all the tumult, many would prefer to focus on the particulars of the revolts—the Shiite-Sunni split in Bahrain, the Palestinian-Jordanian tension in the Hashemite Kingdom, the outrageous corruption in Tunisia, the tribal jealousies and Orwellian bizarreness of Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, the haughty (and in private deviant) autocracy in Morocco, the too-duplicitous dictatorship of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the desiccated authoritarianism of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. 

The Wave Continues

Libyans protest at the Libyan embassy, Cairo, February 21

AP Photo, Hussein Malla

And even though Islam has hardly raised its head in all of these disturbances—Allahu Akbar! is most often uttered as a fraternal, please-don’t-shoot appeal from young men and women to soldiers and not as a war cry—the West’s unease with all these revolts is clearly traceable to the fear that religion will cause Muslims freed of their dictators to run amok. 

Seeing Western parallels with 1848—rather than the more successful, more cleanly ideological, and thus more noble rebellions against communism in 1989—these commentators express, at best, a hopeful diffidence about what is transpiring in the Middle East. After all, we expect reaction to triumph in the Muslim Middle East—hasn’t it always?—and we can’t really embrace the opposition because so much of it is culturally unpleasant and unpredictable. 

Thus, Americans and Britons, who’ve always supplied proficient security advisers to the Bahraini royal family, are comfortable with Manama’s Sunni elite, which is highly Westernized—quite capable, for instance, of hosting private pool parties where Sunni Bahraini women chat with Western men. Shiite Bahraini women, who’ve been courageously taking to the streets, are mostly dressed in black chadors. In any sizing up of the situation—with the U.S. Fifth Fleet anchored in Bahrain, and the chador-wearing Iranians across the Gulf—these things matter. The Muslim Middle East hasn’t produced Václav Havels or Nelson Mandelas (Egypt’s Saad Eddin Ibrahim is as close as we get)—resolutely democratic intellectuals of stature and moral bearing who’ve suffered severely but risen above vengeance to inspire a belief that this will all work out. 

But these commentators, often thoughtful and not mean-spirited towards Muslims, are reading the dynamics in reverse. It’s the universals—especially the democratic ideals —that have welded together the particular complaints into revolt. This democratic sentiment isn’t sophisticated and liberally expressed, but it is deeply felt in the most basic and important way: Arabs and Iranians want to vote for their leaders. Elections for them, as for us, are the sine qua non of a legitimate political order.

It is extremely important to note that nowhere in the rebellious lands have we heard Muslim fundamentalists openly challenging the notion that elections are the moral imperative of our time. This is new. In Iran, there was never any deception on the part of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini about what he intended to do. The New York Times may have thought that the gentleman was an “enigma,” Senator Edward Kennedy may have seen a turbaned George Washington, but that misreading was not due to clever obfuscation by wily, deceiving mullahs. As the historian Bernard Lewis tried to inform the State Department in 1979, Khomeini’s writings were crystal clear: He intended to establish a theocracy. (And even then, a theocracy with “elections.”)

When the Islamic Salvation Front arose in Algeria in 1989-90, during that country’s only democratic moment since the French left in 1962, important forces within the Front were openly touting their intention to establish some kind of religious autocracy. More than anything else, the Front wanted revenge against the National Liberation Front, the ruling party of the military junta, which had turned Algeria into a lifeless socialist police state. 

The fiery orator and political powerhouse within the Islamic Salvation Front, Ali Belhadj, was terrifyingly honest in his intention to make parliament subservient to the Holy Law. But even with Belhadj we could see an Islamist trying to come to terms with the obvious fact that ordinary Algerians really liked the idea that they should freely elect their leaders. Belhadj thought democracy an engine of licentiousness, but he was well aware that democratic sentiments were powerfully competitive with his own cherished Islamist ideals. Other important voices within the Front were much more torn by the competition between God’s Law and the ballot box. That competition has grown enormously in the 20 years since the Front was crushed by the Algerian military. 

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