written for FORBES
Anchor & Reporter
TURMOIL TO DEMOCRACY?
There is beauty because what we may be witnessing is the birth of new democracies. There is horror because of the blood spilled and the people killed in brutal police and military crackdowns on those who oppose the regimes. And there is opportunity, wielding a double-edged sword.
What happens next is far from decided. The optimistic scenario is that the people will prevail and democracies will form and thrive. The pessimistic scenario is the people will have their movement hijacked and radical Islam will prevail and give birth to a Caliphate.
Those who watch the Middle East for a living, the experts, say it is too early to tell which scenario will come true. Many though fear the worst. History belongs to people who know what they want. Those up rise up in anger might well have a goal and leaders but angry people without stronger leaders are vulnerable. Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council points to the history of the 1979 uprising in Iran and the overthrow of the Shah. That uprising was against a corrupt government and oppressive regime. It was religious radicals who seized that anger and a secular uprising gave birth to a religious state.
America has an enormous stake in what happens next for strategic, economic and cultural reasons. So does Iran. In 2005, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for a world without Jews and a word without America.
For Ahmadinejad to achieve his vision he must create a vastly larger state than Iran. The chances of such a state being achieved may be slim but they are breathing. The Obama administration might be helping keep that dream on life support. Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, sees American policy growing increasingly confusing in the Middle East.
May scratches his head and wonders why Israel is not being held up to the region as a model to be followed. Israel is a dynamic democracy with a thriving economy. Instead, the Obama administration supported a rebuke of Israel in the UN Security Council. May calls it puzzling and potentially disastrous that we appear to be abandoning a long time ally in the region. He says it betrays a weakness and is wrong headed. He doesn’t believe we will win friends or gain favor by turning on allies in an apparent appeasement, especially not as Iran is parading its warships through the Suez Canal on their way to Syria in a blatant display of power and force.
For those who dismiss the idea of a Caliphate as preposterous, consider the re-appearance of a Qatar based Muslim Brotherhood preacher in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in mid-February. Yussaf al-Qaradawi has been self-exiled himself from Egypt since 1961. Qaradawi is a very popular religious figure in the region. His fame extends beyond the region. He hosts a regular and well-known talk show on Al-Jazeera, Shariah and Life. He is a strong critic of Arab regimes. He is also known as the “moderate” imam. He is charismatic. He is seen as becoming the likely leader of the opposition movement in Egypt.
So, why worry about a “moderate” imam? This “moderate” imam was the subject of a piece in the German publication, Der Spiegel, the name of the piece was “Islam’s Spiritual ‘Dear Abby’.” This is a different kind of Dear Abby than you may be familiar with as the reporter notes.
“He hates Israel and would love to take up arms himself. In one of his sermons, he asked God to “to kill the Jewish Zionists, every last one of them.”
Quaradawi is also considered to be the voice of The Muslim Brotherhood. While many people, including former President Carter, dismiss concerns about the radical nature of The Muslim Brotherhood, the group has been very open in declaring it’s intention to return Egypt to a religious state ruled by Shariah law. Another leader in the Brotherhood, Muhammad Ghannem, has also declared “the people should be prepared for war against Israel.”
Ironically, countering the voice of war is the group that currently holds the reins of power in Egypt: the Egyptian military. Egypt’s military leaders have made it clear that as long as they remain in power the peace treaty will be honored. By many estimates, the military controls roughly 40% of the Egyptian economy. Add to that the fact that about 35% of the people in the country work for the government and prospects for a regime change appear less likely.
Cliff May thinks the United States should reach out to Egypt and actively engage to support a transition to a full democracy. It is an admittedly difficult proposition but May believe that to not be involved would be a massive mistake as the United States risks becoming meaningless in the region. Some analysts, while pleased with the overthrow of Mubarak are concerned that Egypt can in fact become a democratic nation.
In a commentary published in the Canadian newspaper, The National Post, the director of The Middle East Forum worries that Egypt may stumble and fall on the road to democracy. Daniel Pipes wrote
“Muslims can be as democratic as Westerners. But at this time, they are the least democratic of peoples and the Islamist movement presents a huge obstacle to political participation. In Egypt as elsewhere, my theoretical optimism, in other words, is tempered by a pessimism based on present and future realities.”
There is another reality to consider as well. There are religious differences with Islam that may not matter to the outsider but they are every bit as potent as the split within Christianity of Protestants and Catholics. In Islam the split is between the Sunni and the Shia or Shiites. Iran is a country dominated by Shiites. In Egypt the Sunni’s are the dominant branch. This distinction is not a joke. It is taken very seriously. It was fundamentally what was at the root of the war between Iran and Iraq. The assassins of Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s President before Mubarak, were Shiites and Sadat was a Sunni. In Iran, there is a boulevard named after Sadat’s killers. The deposed Shah of Iran is buried in Egypt. The cause of ethnic strife in Bahrain is because the ruling class is Sunni and the underclass is Shiite. In Saudi Arabia, Shiites are a strongly repressed minority and the unrest in Bahrain is fueling unrest inside of Saudi Arabia.
While unification of the two sects would seem impossible if not merely unlikely, experts are not so fast to dismiss that possibility. Those experts are quick to point out that as much as they may hate each other, they hate Israel even more and the West even more than that. Hate is a powerful divide and a more potent unifier.
Beyond Egypt, the United States and Middle East are intricately intertwined. We have bilateral free trade accords with five countries in the region: Israel, Morocco, Oman, Jordan and Bahrain. What we don’t have, yet, is a Free Trade Agreement with Egypt. Some observers believe establishing a more formal trading relationship with Egypt under an FTA is an economic and diplomatic tool to be used wisely.
The biggest economic relationship with have with the Middle East is oil. Recent oil and natural gas finds in the United States combined with existing reserves provide something of a cushion but wells in the Middle East already exist while the United States has been reluctant to development its resources. Analysts do agree that the likelihood of there being a disruption of supplies is small as in order to profit from their reserves, the reserves have to be sold. Still, just like the American relationship with China, we are in a position of dependency. We rely on China to buy our debt and to provide us with manufactured goods. To a large extent, we rely on the Middle East to fill our energy needs.
The United States also has deep ties militarily in the region. Those forces have been a stabilizing force in that part of the world. We have military bases in Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Jordon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq. Ilan Berman believes we should be monitoring the situation closely and be keenly aware of developments which might mean a loss of access to the region militarily. The situation is particularly sensitive for U.S. interests in Bahrain which has been the location of some of the harshest crackdowns. Bahrain is home to the U.S. 5th fleet and is a counter to the Iranian Naval fleet presence in the region.
For all of the risk it carries, what is happening in the Middle East is inspirational. It gives us the opportunity to witness to what our forefathers brought forth on this continent. It is too be marveled, appreciated and honored.
The celebrations did take one bizarre twist; a twist that no one in the Middle East could have possibly predicted. Here, stateside, the protests apparently inspired so much enthusiasm and desire to be connected to them that people began comparing protests in the U.S. to protestors in Egypt. So, suddenly, government employees with nice salaries and over the top benefits when compared to their counterparts in the private sector are the oppressed?
Americans are a tremendously patient group of people but that doesn’t mean they are gullible. The rallying cry, “Fight like an Egyptian” stretched credibility and threatened to make a farce out of the brave souls who driven by oppression and hunger toppled a dictator from his 30 years of autocratic rule.
Such comparisons were too much for employees at Reuters who are in the middle of a contract dispute with their employer. When a letter from the Newspaper Guild of New York went around to employees likening their dispute with the uprising in Egypt it reportedly did go over so well with employees who were quoted in the press as saying the comparison was “inappropriate”. A spokesperson for the Guild appeared to realize the mistake and admitted that they were not trying to compare their members situation in any way to that of the citizens of Egypt.
Good. Now that has been cleared up, let us watch and pray that the forces of secular democracy succeed against all odds in Egypt and elsewhere so that they may know and understand as we understand, the meaning of these words,