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Middle East in Turmoil: Watch Out for Falling Dominoes

February 3, 2011

Now the rising wave of unrest has rolled from Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen, Jordan and Algeria. Who will be next? How many dominoes will fall, and in which direction?

We could be looking at another 1979 — the year Iranians overthrew a repressive pro-Western shah and inaugurated a generation of even more repressive Islamism. Or it could be another 1989 — when the Iron Curtain turned gossamer, and the weary wards of the Soviet Union began to agitate openly for democracy.

Why did the Iranian revolution turn sour while the Eastern European revolution succeeded? That’s an easy one for The New Moderate to answer: the Iranians put an extremist in charge; the Eastern Europeans benefited from the influence of moderate revolutionaries (yes, Virginia, moderates make the best revolutionaries) like Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa and even the much-maligned Boris Yeltsin.

At this moment the Middle East could tip either way: if the moderates prevail, we’d be looking at the most exhilarating political development of the new millennium; if religious fanatics win the hearts of the people, we could be greeting a new Dark Age of worldwide jihad… a resurgence of the old Caliphate that overran Spain and advanced to the gates of Vienna. (Pessimists take note: the original Caliphate was a hotbed of enlightenment compared to its reactionary 21st century counterpart.)

What are the odds that the Middle East will tip (if and when it finally reaches the tipping point) toward genuine democracy instead of radical Islamism? Fair to good, I’d like to believe.

Where’s the evidence? Egypt and its neighbors are reeling from mass poverty and unemployment.  The people want food and jobs and representation; they’re risking their lives to overthrow a dictatorial and unresponsive leadership. Religion and anti-Americanism rank relatively low on their priority list right now. But the movement needs inspired (and inspiring) moderates to take charge, galvanize the people and guide their nations through the transition to democracy.

In Egypt, Mohamed ElBaradei seems to be the man of the moment. An educated and well-respected international figure with a shelf full of liberal peace awards (including the Nobel Peace Prize), he has returned to Egypt and expressed his willingness to head a transitional government.

Is ElBaradei a moderate? Not really, but at least he’s not a radical. Some have questioned his relationship with the underground Muslim Brotherhood (like Obama, he’s willing to accept MB representatives in any new Egyptian government). The good news is that the Brotherhood has been quick to distance itself from ElBaradei.

If Mubarak’s government does fall, and if ElBaradei takes charge during the transition (two big ifs), we’ll be surrendering the ironclad assurance that Egypt will automatically favor U.S. interests. That’s the downside of any revolution: we have to contend with new and uncertain variables.

The upside (and I’d like to be an optimist) is that we could be watching democracy sweep through Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. In any representative democracy there will be liberals, conservatives and radicals of all stripes… pro-Americans and anti-Americans… Islamists and secularists. For better or worse, that’s the nature of democracy.

Let’s just hope that moderate candidates are more popular in the Middle East than they are in America.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Priscilla permalink
    February 3, 2011 8:20 pm

    I am not at all optimistic about moderates taking control in the Middle East, if those moderates, like ElBaradei, are willing to accept, on any level, the anti-Semitic anti-Christian, misogynist, genocidal and oppressive policies of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Giving them a seat at the table is like welcoming the fox into the henhouse, and will likely have similar results.

  2. February 3, 2011 9:31 pm

    Priscilla: I share your apprehensions, but most parliamentary democracies have historically included representatives from fringe parties. The trick will be keeping the Muslim Brotherhood as a distinct minority. Voters in a democracy have the right to elect the candidates of their choice; the moderate leadership of these new governments would have to please the people sufficiently to make sure the Brotherhood remains in the background. (That gives the government little room for screwing up, of course.)

    There’s another factor to consider. To use one of LBJ’s salty analogies, “Better to have them inside the tent p__ing out, than outside the tent p__ing in.” If the Muslim Brotherhood has a voice, limited as it is, it might be good enough to keep them from mobilizing the masses as an underground movement. We can hope, anyway.

  3. Priscilla permalink
    February 4, 2011 10:23 am

    We c

  4. Priscilla permalink
    February 4, 2011 10:31 am

    Haha, oops….hit that post button by mistake, a bit early.

    Anyway, we can hope, I suppose….but if history is any lesson, both Nasser and Sadat tried to co-opt the MB, and both paid with their lives. Nasser, for the crime of refusing to institute sharia, and Sadat for making peace with Israel. Both believed that they could co-exist and control the Islamists, but it was not possible.

    I, unfortunately, tend to believe that Mubarak’s pro-American policies can only be successful by suppressing the Islamists….that doesn’t necessarily mean oppressing the whole of Egypt, but, when (reportedly) 80% of your population supports the violent destruction of Israel and the oppression of Christians, democracy does become problematic……..

    • February 4, 2011 1:49 pm

      Priscilla: Nasser wasn’t assassinated; he died of a heart attack a few years after his loss in the 6-Day War. But Sadat definitely paid the price.

      I don’t know how you can suppress Islamist fanatics forever. It’s like trying to sit on a volcano. The Islamist leaders feed on the people’s anger at their own poverty and lack of prospects. Whether they’re inside the government or outside, they’re a force to be reckoned with.

      I figured that giving them a legitimate voice in the government might go a little way toward de-radicalizing them and their followers. Then I thought about the Nazis gaining ground (and more popular support) once they had seats in the Weimar government. Ugh. What can we do with these guys? Islamists are going to be the scourge of this century.

      I’m still hoping that moderate democrats in power can make everyone happy for a while. But then, I’m still hoping that Rutgers will make the top 20 in the U.S. News college rankings.

  5. Kent Garshwiler permalink
    February 5, 2011 3:02 am

    At this point everything is a “toss up”. I suspect that the Muslim Brotherhood will have a big influence if this crisis continues. It is important to end this struggle as soon as possible. The people want change and any big organization in Egypt that can show strength against the government of Murbarak will grow over time.

    Coming from a Religious-Conservative background. I can assure you that these young people respect their religious elders, but do want to enjoy the Western influences. If this drags out too long the young will cling to the elders to solve the issue…in comes the Muslim Brotherhood….then the Muslim Brotherhood will give freedom or turn the young into hating the western nations for lack of support and use many reasons (i.e. different religion, evil influences). The young are “wet clay” to elders in many ways. All you have to do is review the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

    The question I ponder is how much time will pass before this is resolved.

    If Murbarak doesn’t solve this soon. Someone else will. They are looking for a leader or an organization to lead the opposition. I wonder what the member count is looking right now for the Muslim Brotherhood.

    • February 8, 2011 11:44 pm

      Kent: There are some close parallels between today’s Egyptians and the Iranians of 1979, but here’s how I see the difference: the Iranians, even those who were educated and Europeanized, were motivated by a fierce anti-Americanism. They saw the Shah as a U.S. puppet and turned to the Ayatollah as a symbol of Iranian sovereignty. Of course, the peasants wanted the Ayatollah, too — more for religious than political reasons.

      In Egypt, I don’t see the same degree of anti-Americanism. Yes, Mubarak is a handy U.S. stooge, but our influence there isn’t as pervasive as it was in the Shah’s Iran. The people resent Mubarak and the U.S., but not ferociously enough to do a 180 and opt for a theocracy. There’s probably more support for the Islamists among the underclass than among educated Egyptians. In Iran, virtually everyone wanted the Islamists… and now most of them are sorry they did. Egyptians have had 30 years to observe Iran and see what happens when you put religious authoritarians in power.

  6. Priscilla permalink
    February 5, 2011 9:27 am

    Oh dear, I have revealed my tin-foil Nasser death conspiracy hat. True story: I was in Paris at the time of his death, and had been hanging out for some weeks with, of all people, a group of Palestinians, whose reaction to Nasser’s demise was intense grief, on a level that I had never seen – not even after JFK’s assassination. They all firmly believed, at first, that he had been poisoned by Sadat – later, they changed that to other opponents….but, there was no doubt, no doubt at all, in their minds, that Nasser met an calculated and untimely end. I supposed that this has informed my beliefs on this event, which is rather odd, given that I don’t usually get my historical factoids from random meetups with Muslim expatriates, haha. I was also a Rutgers student at the time….coincidence? I think not!

    • February 8, 2011 11:52 pm

      Priscilla: It’s an interesting conspiracy theory… but SADAT? He seemed like such a decent chap. Maybe the army did it, the way they took care of Sadat. Anyway, Nasser looked like a heart attack waiting to happen, even though he was only 52.

      So you were hanging out with a group of Palestinians in Paris? Your radical past finally comes to light. You weren’t behind the ’68 student riots, were you? No, you would have been a freshman then. Still… verrry interesting.

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