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.
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.
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.
The Obama administration is obviously having a hard time with the Great Arab Rebellion. In Egypt, President Obama finally saved the ship of state from a “realist” wreck by making it clear that he sided with the demonstrators and not the regime of Hosni Mubarak. But the president is still off balance in the Middle East, a region he does not know.
The inexcusable wobbling—when firm condemnation of the bloodlust of Libya’s savage ruler was called for—suggests that President Obama’s “realist” roots are stronger than his sincere concern for third-worlders struggling for freedom. (If President Obama wanted to bury Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s dream of being the hero of the Arab world, he’d immediately order U.S. fighter aircraft into the skies of Libya to destroy all airplanes, helicopters, and armored columns attacking the citizenry.)
The administration may well play an inconsistent game, trying to support democracy seriously in Egypt but less seriously elsewhere. This will be a big mistake, inviting the contempt of Arabs and the collapse of U.S. democracy promotion everywhere. We need a consistent rule: The United States endorses one form of government—the one it chooses for itself, representative government—and it applauds this everywhere. The Khalifa family in Bahrain and the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan should be under no illusions about where America’s heart and wallet are. We most certainly are in favor of orderly change, which is why the Khalifas and Hashemites should start now to transfer political power gradually to the Shia in Bahrain and the Palestinians in Jordan. They may possibly save their monarchies by doing so (and save us a fairly good friend on the East Bank of the Jordan River and the anchorage of the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf). We really don’t want to see the Saudi armed forces rolling across the Gulf causeway to crush democratic protests in Bahrain. If we wanted to create a situation that Iran could exploit, that would be it. If we wanted to ignite sectarian strife throughout the region, that would be how to do it.
The United States has an enormous role to play midwifing democracy throughout the Middle East. And President Obama, if he could realize this despite his profound unease at becoming the successor to the freedom-promoting George W. Bush, might go down in history as America’s great third world president—the man who permanently buried our dependency on despots throughout the Middle East.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, and the author of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover Institution Press).