The controlled public rage against corruption, oppression, and marginalization at the hands of tyrannical Arab regimes that has unfolded in recent weeks is unprecedented and probably unstoppable, but it caught most Western observers by surprise. While they accept the Arab revolt for what it is—a rejection of dehumanizing conditions—most Western analysts have dug out their old notes and recycled their customary predictions: The inevitable outcome will be that Islamists will take over and mobilize the Arabs against Western interests.
Now that Mubarak has stepped down as president of Egypt, worries persist that Islamists will impose their theocratic totalitarianism on the Egyptian people, despite the fact that power has been transferred to the military high command as a temporary caretaker until the Egyptian people decide what form of government they will adopt.
Apprehension that Islamists will turn public discontent to their advantage is understandable and legitimate, but that outcome should not be taken as a foregone conclusion. From what we know now, the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen have been organized and carried out mostly by nonsectarian citizens who are driven by worldly needs and by the rejection of corrupt systems that enslave them through fear, intimidation, hunger, and contempt for human rights. The vast majority of the protesters in Maydan Al-Tahrir (Liberation Square) were not waving Muslim textbooks or pictures of terrorists and religious fanatics, but flashing signs that read “shukran Facebook”—Thank you, Facebook.
The chance that Islamists will capture the Arab uprisings is slim unless anti-democratic, oil rich Arab dynasties like the Saudi and other Gulf monarchs, or their Iranian rivals, are allowed to pour billions of dollars into the coffers of their respective proxies, as they did in Gaza, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The West can prevent this from happening, but even if it does happen, whoever seizes power in the countries in revolt will be forced to remember the fate of the ousted rulers they replaced.
The millions of Arabs who took to the streets and risked their lives to bring an end to centuries of oppression are not likely to accept theocratic dictatorships after ridding themselves of tyrannical ruling dynasties. Most of the rebelling generation grew up in the age of transformative modern technologies and knowledge of their human rights. They spend more time debating worldly issues over social media than reading the Koran or going to mosques. Their perceptions of themselves and the world they want to be part of supersede nationalism, tradition, and religious indoctrination. This reality is overlooked in the current avalanche of analysis and predictions.
Instead of concentrating on fear of Islamists, the West ought to focus on the unprecedented shift in attitude among Arabs in addressing their multitude of grievances. For the first time, the Arab people have publicly recognized that their misfortunes are not the fault of outsiders— the West, Israel, colonialism—but the result of the hierarchical and totalitarian Arab methods of governing in which the individual is subservient to the state and to the whims of absolute rulers.
Western analysts are also overlooking one of the most astounding aspects of the present turmoil: It is apparently irrelevant to the well-being of the international community. For example, global trade and travel, and the availability and prices of commodities like oil, are almost unaffected by the Arab uprising. This can be attributed partly to the fact that the Arabs contribute little or nothing to the world’s knowledge-based technological economy.
Some may argue that the world’s relative lack of alarm over destabilizing turmoil in the Arab world is due to the fact that Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen have little impact on the world’s oil production. True, but even if a political uprising befell Saudi Arabia itself, a short-term interruption of the oil supply could easily be made up from other sources. In addition, Arab autocracies need to sell their oil to placate their restless populations and discourage oil consumers from developing alternative sources of energy, a notion oil producers dread.
Furthermore, any major interruption in oil production and shipping would be used as a justification for a Western military response, not only to ensure the flow of oil without which global economic stability cannot be maintained, but also to rid the Middle East of dangerous dictators like the Shia mullahs of Iran and the Wahhabi Sunni extremists. Given these plausible scenarios, the West and the international community need not worry too much about the destabilization of Arab despots whose domestic and international policies pose mortal threats to Western civilization.
Ali Alyami is executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, based in Washington, D.C.