Middle East in Turmoil: Watch Out for Falling Dominoes
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.