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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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The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, an organization born and raised in clandestine opposition to foreign occupation and domestic dictatorship, has many profound misgivings about democracy. There’s not a fundamentalist alive who doesn’t have misgivings. But what is extraordinary to note about the Brotherhood is the extent to which it publicly embraces the idea that democracy is the only legitimate political system for Egypt. 

The current leader of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, like his predecessor, the always frightful Muhammad Mahdi Akef, may well dream of a reborn caliphate—Sunni fundamentalists have been romantically attached to this idea since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the Ottoman caliphate in 1924—but the notion has no political relevance in Egypt today, and the Muslim Brotherhood knows it. Islamist organizations have played a small role in the uprisings throughout the Arab countries because they, more than anyone else, know their world is in rapid transition. 

Islamists are bottom feeders: They know what’s going on among the urban poor. In 1990, Belhadj could plausibly hope to rally enough Algerians to his authoritarian Islamist banner. In 2011, after the palpable failure of the Islamic revolution in Iran, after 20 years of the democratization of Egypt’s intellectual life, which obliged the Muslim Brotherhood to wrestle openly with the democratic ethos in ways that it never had before, Islamic fundamentalists are actually in retreat. 

They will, no doubt, rally. The secular dictatorships, which Western powers once thought so progressive, have warped national identities throughout the region. (This is much less true in Egypt, where the modern national identity is older and more solid than anywhere else in the Arab world.) In this desolation, the Islamic identity—the root identity of the Middle East—grew stronger.

Islamism is trying hard to make the jump into the democratic age, which is now arriving in force. Islamists today sincerely hope that most Muslims will be good Muslims (the Sunni Islamic tradition doesn’t really recognize the philosophical possibility that a majority of the faithful could be bad Muslims), and therefore they affirm the democratic promise. But they know they are going into uncharted territory. Many in the West fear an Islamist wave that democracy could bring; Islamists fear that Western fears are unfounded. 

There is absolutely no guarantee that Arab democracies, assuming they are born, will be particularly friendly to the United States. What we are likely to see in the Middle East is a variant of what we have seen in a democratizing Latin America, which like the Muslim Middle East had a tense history with the United States in the 20th century. Democratically empowered Latin Americans, now and then, like to stick it to Americans. (And only a historically purblind American patriot would deny them that pleasure.) But as democratically empowered Latin Americans have become rapidly more responsible at home, they have become less emotional, less prideful—descriptions we often hear applied to the denizens of the Middle East—in their dealings with Americans. Latin American democratic experiments can go awry; they have in Venezuela and Nicaragua, but in neither case is the situation hopeless—precisely because the democratic ethos, however badly mauled, lives on in these countries. The Venezuelan people remain our best bet for getting rid of Hugo Chávez. 

Democracy in the Middle East will likely be rougher for the United States. Long-held conspiracy theories and animosities against the “imperial” West—especially “Zionist-controlled America”—live on in left-wing Arab and Iranian intellectual circles, which will probably get a new lease on life with the coming of democracy. More fundamentally, the Middle East is a Muslim region whose medieval and modern identities were in great part formed in opposition to Christendom and the West. The most elemental reflexes are infelicitous.

But working against this history is the idea of America—a revolutionary bastion of the democratic common man where all have a chance for happiness—that still finds its way into the bloodstream of the Muslim Middle East. This is an abstract notion, often far less noticeable than the traditional animosity bred by Islam and the Islamist animosity bred by modernity’s (that is, America’s) unrelenting advance. But it is powerful nonetheless, which is why Egyptian protesters could be heard to complain vociferously about America’s diffidence in supporting their cause. The anger at Europeans was less because far less is expected of them. 

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