For decades, the West has been trying to bring democracy to the Middle East.
U.S. President Barack Obama, in his Sept. 24, 2013 speech to United Nations, stated that it is in America's "interest to see a Middle East and North Africa that is peaceful and prosperous." He stated that the U.S. "will continue to promote democracy, human rights, and open markets, because we believe these practices achieve peace and prosperity." His reasoning, he said, was that "societies based upon democracy and openness and the dignity of the individual will ultimately be more stable, more prosperous, and more peaceful."
Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, Foreign Minister of Egypt for seven years, stated in a televised interview in response to President Obama's idealism, that democracy is almost impossible in the Middle East because of its culture and because of democracy's conflict with sharia laws. Unlike the American model of democracy that is based on the separation of church and state, in Egypt, the constitution clearly affirms that Islam is the official religion of the state and Sharia law is main source of legislation. Many intellectuals in the region apparently agree with Mr. Aboul-Gheit's assessment.
In addition, the Middle East, they say, particularly Egypt, is missing the essential pillars of a democratic society. Political and religious tolerance, the rule of law, accountability and transparency, freedom of expression, civil society, an effective education system, and limited government simply do not exist in the majority of the nations in this region.
Too often, as everywhere, people and groups use state power to abuse and oppress their opponents. Where Sunni Muslims are in control, they oppress the Shia Muslims. And where Shia Muslims control the government, as in Iran, they oppress the Sunnis. In Syria, the Alawites – regarded by some as an offshoot of Shia Islam – control the military and have been using murderous tactics keep the Sunni majority at bay, protecting themselves from the oppression they would endure if the Sunnis were in charge. And both of them hate the Christians, and of course, the Jews.
The U.S. and its allies who invaded Iraq in 2003 to oust a brutal dictator and create a democracy seem not yet to understand this reality. In the same speech to the UN in 2013, President Obama confirmed it, stating "Iraq shows us that democracy cannot be imposed by force." Today, sectarian violence among the Muslims of Iraq is a daily occurrence. The bloody war between the Sunnis and Shia, which has been going on for 1,400 years, is erupting again in Iraq and spreading to other countries in the Middle East.
In Egypt, the state-sponsored Sunni clerics who control Al Azhar University, the leading Islamic institution in Cairo, and who issue thousands of fatwas [Islamic religious opinions] every year, are demanding that the government prohibit Egypt's 200,000 Shia Muslims from broadcasting their doctrine on the grounds that they are supposedly not true Muslims. Recently, four members of the Shia leadership were butchered in broad daylight, murdered after Muhammad Hassan, a Salafist cleric, appeared on national television with Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, and, during his appearance, called on Morsi to constrain the influence of Shias in Egypt. When Morsi did not rebuke Hassan, whose Salafist followers interpreted his statements as a fatwa, they attacked the Shia leaders, and posted their attack on YouTube.
In Egypt, leaders of the Al-Nour Party, comprised of Salafists, demand that the new constitution allow only Muslims, Christians, and Jews to practice their religions in Egypt. (There are less than 100 elderly Jews left in Egypt.)
This Salafist call to designate Christianity and Judaism as lawful religions is not, however, a plea for tolerance: the Salafists consider Christianity and Judaism false religions that should eventually should be eliminated. While they call for Christianity and Judaism to be declared lawful religions in the Egyptian constitution, they have burned churches and killed Christians. In response, Abu Ishaq Al-Heweny, a prominent Salafist Sheikh, asked his followers to restrain themselves. Muslims, he said, should not befriend with Christians, but should have mercy on them. What does this mercy entail? Treating them like "dogs," he explained in a televised sermon.
Salafists engage in interfaith dialogue so long as it is in the West. In September 2013, for example, Nader Bakkar, the spokesman for the Al Nour party, attended a conference in Washington DC about Securing Egypt's Future -- a conference attended by Jews and Christians, the very same people Salafists have terrorized in Egypt.
Today, the rule of law does not exist anymore in the Arab Spring's countries. When thugs attacked the main Christian Cathedral in Cairo, the police stood by around their armored personnel carriers. And when rioters attacked the Israeli Embassy in a high-rise building in upscale part of Cairo, the police and army watched. They even allowed the rioters to climb atop their armored vehicles to gain access to the upper levels of the building where the Israeli Embassy is located.
There has been huge increase in the crime rate in Egypt, with spikes in sexual harassment, kidnappings, and drug use. The government responds by blaming "foreign hands" – a code word for Israel.
Egyptian sitcoms every day feature characters smoking hashish, also known as "hash," yet the authorities blames Israel for smuggling it into Egypt to destroy the youth -- blaming Israel for a problem they themselves have created. Such self-defeating accusations to implicate anyone but oneself are the norm in the Middle East.
Gamal Abdel Nasser's polices are responsible for many of the problems in Egypt and the Middle East, yet he is lionized as a hero. His provocations against Israel set into motion Egypt's loss of the Sinai in 1967; nevertheless, people hold up his photos everywhere in squares around the Middle East, and his legacy today is bigger than in life.
Hamdeen Sabahi, a presidential candidate in Egypt's 2012 elections, ran as the modern-day incarnation of Nasser. Sabahi did not win, but his decision to invoke Nasser as his model shows the power the man still has on the Egyptians' imagination.
By way of comparison, it might help to look at the fate of President Anwar Sadat, who got back the Sinai for Egypt as a result of the 1973 War and ushered in an era of relative prosperity. Sadat was the first Arabic leader to travel to Israel and speak in the Knesset and to sign the first peace treaty with the Jewish state. He also stated that the October '73 war was the last war between Egypt and Israel. Sadat was killed by Islamists – whom he freed from prison. Why? Because he shook hands with the Jews.
In a region where poverty and illiteracy are almost 50%, democracy is not a priority. The priorities are having a job, something to eat every night, medicine and education.
Things may not improve in the Middle East until Muslim extremists recognize that non-Muslims are not a threat to their faith, but that the real threat to their faith is the actions of extremists in their midst.
Things may not improve in the Middle East until Muslims recognize that political Islam never worked in the past and will never work in the future.
When the West separated religion from politics, people were able to build a sustainable civilization worth living in.
When Muslims stop oppressing each other and stop trying to impose their will on non-Muslims, there can be "peace and prosperity" in the Middle East -- insh'allah, God willing.
Michael Armanious, a U.S.-based news analyst and video producer, was born and raised in Egypt.