The revolutionary crisis in the Arab countries, after erupting unexpectedly, has proceeded with exceptional speed. The overthrow of Tunisia's 23-year ruler, Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, who headed a secularist and nationalist one-party state, had barely registered in the awareness of the foreign public when Egypt fell into upheaval. Political analysts are challenged by hourly changes in the state of public order in Cairo and other major Egyptian cities. Individual and mass protests have spread to Algeria and Yemen. In most of these countries, the future of democratic change is darkened by the presence of powerful Islamist elements: the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Tunisia, where it is known as Al-Nahda, or Rebirth; and Egypt, the MB's birthplace and stronghold -- as well as al-Qaida in Yemen, where the terrorist cadre was "deported" to by the rulers of Saudi Arabia.
The chaos in Cairo has, at least temporarily, occupied the top of the news. But behind the media bulletins and messages conveyed via social networks, two important questions await answer. The first has to do with the democratization agenda pursued by President George W. Bush and, at least at the beginning, abandoned by President Barack H. Obama. The second is simpler: Will the mass movements against autocratic rule in the Arab lands move in the direction of the MB?
The powerful Washington lobby favoring the status quo in the lands of Islam, driven by the interests of the Western energy industry, has delivered its verdict. Anthony Cordesman, a prominent figure at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), has a long record of advocacy for Saudi Arabia and other reactionary states. In the Financial Times of January 28, Cordesman admonished those enthusiastic about the apparent democratic resurgence, under the tut-tutting headline "Be careful what you wish for in [the] Arab world." Cordesman warned, in an exasperated manner, "The US and Europe… need to stop focusing on democracy, human rights and the rule of law… America now focuses too much on rhetoric about democracy."
The angry protesters in the Arab lands, who have adopted "democracy" as a goal without clear definition, should have proven Cordesman wrong before he wrote his opinion. Tunisians, Egyptians, and Yemenis have reintroduced the demand for democracy into Arab and Muslim politics without much encouragement by the U.S. The stance of the Obama administration, for many in the Muslim world, continues to be defined by its indifference to the collective protests of the Iranian majority in 2009, after the falsified election in that country. Iran, which began the cycle of radical Islamist power 31 years ago, may well be the country that inaugurates a new phase of democratic governance based on secure civil society. This positive alternative has only one source: the weariness and disgust of the Iranian people with Islamist rule. Iranians, perhaps even more than Tunisians and Egyptians, demand a government based on support for unfettered entrepreneurship, public accountability, and popular sovereignty.
In general, the Bush administration's emphasis on democracy has been vindicated. But the absence of vigorous and sturdy civil society in the Arab lands leads to the second major issue: Will the fall of Arab autocracies enable the victory of the MB, which, at least in Egypt, is by far the best-organized oppositional movement? To the election in Gaza, which brought Hamas to power, and the subordination of the new government in Iraq to Iranian influence – two unintended consequences of the Bush-era democratization – may be added the entrenchment of the "soft-Islamist" Justice and Development party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. These are indicators that democratic measures are risky.
The democratic protesters from Algeria to Yemen -- should they succeed in toppling the secularist, militarist, nationalist, personalist, and corrupt strata that have ruled over them for decades -- will face a spectrum of possibilities. These range from full democratization and healthy free-market expansion, as seen in the Philippines after the fall of Marcos in 1986, to capitalism without democracy, as has emerged from communist China. Various countries that underwent political convulsions in the last quarter century represent variants between these two examples. The Baltic States have freed themselves of the legacy of Russian communism; Poland less so, but promising better. Russia itself has adopted the idiom of democracy but produced a mafia state with a renewed emphasis on aggressive nationalism and police repression.
Turkey, in moving away from the de-facto one-party state imposed by its secular rulers, seems to be headed in the Chinese direction: toward bourgeois prosperity and upward mobility, but expressed in Islamist terms that lack firm commitment to democratic principles. As Russia, China, and Turkey regain regional ascendancy (these are, after all, successors to old empires) as well as economic capacity, religious and ethnic minorities within their borders remain anxious about their futures. Russian wealth does not end turmoil involving its Muslims; China contends with Tibetan, other Buddhist, and democratic dissenters. The Turkish AKP regime cannot ameliorate the fears of its Alevi (non-Sunni) Muslims or its Kurdish subjects.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran of Bush democratization and one of the most articulate experts on the Muslim world, in the Financial Times of January 19, a week before issuance of Cordesman's judgment, described "the rise of a new political class: young people who stand for neither secular tyranny nor Islamist radicalism." While youth is always a source of inspiration in political life, the consciousness of the new revolutionaries in the Arab lands is so far inchoate. The MB in Tunisia and Egypt and the AKP in Turkey are all supported primarily by young, new middle class elites. And has been written since the climactic events of September 11, 2001, radical Islam is a distorted expression of upwardly-mobile aspirations in societies where such ambitions have been frustrated for generations by despotism and corruption.
The Muslim Brotherhood -- with its public and superficial turn to "ballots, rather than bullets," everywhere it is active except Gaza -- represents the master pattern for a movement aimed at channeling the disappointment of over-educated, under-employed, and manipulated majorities into the reactionary utopia of Islamist ideology. In an interview with Tunisian MB theoretician Rachid Ghannouchi, the Financial Times noted on January 18 that his "many books have been translated into Turkish, where they have contributed to the modern outlook of Turkish Islamists."
While Anthony Cordesman and CSIS guide a Washington contingent hostile to change in the Muslim lands, the American policy-profession also harbors a notable coterie that believes MB rule in Egypt and elsewhere will be painless for the world and should be given U.S. approval. But the MB -- like other semi-militarized extremist movements, including Hezbollah, the Irish Republican Army, and the Basque separatists grouped in ETA --cannot, in the view of closer observers, be trusted to abandon its violent heritage. The New York Times, on January 21, noted in passing that Rachid Ghannouchi of the Tunisian MB, "during the Persian Gulf war of 1991… called for attacks on American interests in the region to avenge the invasion of a Muslim country." Few Westerners seem aware that the MB defense of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq alienated the MB throughout the Arab countries from the Saudi-Wahhabi regime. The Saudi royals understood that Saddam's seizure of Kuwait threatened Riyadh; they welcomed American aid in repelling the Iraqis. But the failure of the Saudi Wahhabis to rally to the aid of Saddam and the MB enraged Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts, since as hard-core Wahhabis they saw the U.S. as the eternal enemy, and this anticipated the growth of al-Qaida.
Commentators with improvised predictions and proposals for dealing with the new Arab revolt may be discredited by the rush of events, even as their arguments are posted on websites. The fall of communism was never adequately thought out before it began, even by its most articulate opponents, and the process of recovery from radical statism remains incomplete. Nor has the political process of democratization in the Muslim countries been adequately sketched out, much less thoroughly examined, by experts anywhere. The Arab countries are undergoing a revolution without the classic revolutionary consciousness embodied in liberal values and represented by the business and related elites.
The outcome of the new Arab revolt will most likely be determined by developments outside the immediate field of action, in Iran and Saudi Arabia. These powers, which dominate the core Muslim countries, are those where popular discontent expresses exhaustion and disgust with Islamist ideology, as represented both by the clerical dictatorship created by Ayatollah Khomeini, and by the dominance of Wahhabism over Saudi society. Iranians and Saudi dissidents have shown that they want more than democracy – they want democracy that protects them from Islamist tyranny.
If the new Arab revolt reawakens the Green movement in Iran and stirs fresh demands for social reform in Saudi Arabia, a deep transformation of the Muslim world is possible. But the democratic revolution must center in the leading states, and not be limited to countries like Egypt, which, although populous and strategically-important, has been relegated to the margin of modern Islamic history because of the long historical weight of despotism upon it. Mubarak represents something very old in his country's chronicles – the Pharaonic temptation to hold and maintain absolute power as a deeply-ingrained cultural symbol. Ridding Egypt of authoritarianism and corruption will be no easier than the same tasks have proven in China, the Nile nation's peer in historical age.
The U.S. and the West should engage with non-Islamist democratic movements throughout Islamic lands, but should make clear that solidarity with the embattled Iranian people, and firm support for real change in Saudi Arabia, are Western priorities. The process of democratization will be extended through time; new regimes guaranteeing freedom will not appear whole, out of a bad past.
The fall of the Tehran tyrants and a constitutional transformation of the Saudi kingdom could draw the protesting masses from Algeria to Yemen away from Islamist ideology, could weaken tendencies toward "soft" Islamism in Turkey, could rescue the Iraqi democratic state, could change political conditions in Gaza and Lebanon, and could serve as an incentive for Pakistan to curb the radicalism within its military and state apparatus.
The crisis in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen is regional in its immediate, episodic nature but global in its consequences. To respond adequately to it requires a broad and imaginative, rather than a narrow and parochial, view. Westerners and supporters of democracy in the Islamic countries should avoid extreme enthusiasm and hopeless despair alike: but as fissures appear in the facade of Arab dictatorships, the outcome remains uncertain.