On Democracy And The Islamic World

Egyptian Demonstrators and Cops Battling In the Streets


Should the US Government Support the Democracy Movement?

A populist movement for democracy is spreading across the Islamic world and established governments are crumbling from the forces they have unleashed.    It began in Tunisia, where the government was swept away by enraged citizens who turned out into the streets en masse. When the army refused to suppress the popular uprising President Ben Ali was forced to flee the country.  This populist wave of righteous anger rapidly spread to Lebanon, where the militant armed formation Hezbollah has seized power through machinations of the political process.

Even as I write the most powerful of all Arab countries, Egypt, is tottering on the brink of political collapse and President Mubarak’s grasp on power is about as secure as a sinner hanging over hell’s fire by an eyelash come Judgment Day!  The question for Americans is: what should our country do?  Should President Obama come out and unconditionally support the populist movement for democracy?

It is safe to assume that this is the burning question on the minds of all the policy wonks in the State Department and CIA, and President Obama will make his decisions about the direction of American policy after he has digested their intelligence briefs.  Although Mr. Obama is easily the most knowledgeable President on the Middle East that this nation has ever enjoyed…and the most politically enlightened, he still needs advice about how to approach the rapidly deteriorating situation.

The President’s statement in support of the Egyptian people’s right to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with their government, free from coercion by the police powers of the state, is an indication of how seriously he is taking the situation. For many Americans the choice seems simple: the president should throw the full weight of the US government in support of the democratic forces without hesitation – Would that the matter was that simple.

As President of the United States Mr. Obama is tasked with protecting American interests around the world.  Thus the objectives of his foreign policy must seek to secure these interests.  Viewed from this perspective what seems like a simple matter becomes bewilderingly complex.  What are American interests in the Middle East?  Reduced to its simplest terms – stripped of the pious and dangerous prattle about “American Exceptionalism” in which we are destined to spread “Americanism” around the world – the US is fundamentally interested in keeping the oil flowing to the west at relatively cheap prices, and building a defense against the Jihadist movement whose ultimate goal is to explode a nuclear weapon in Manhattan!   They have said as much; I believe them, and the President had better believe it too.

The President’s task is further complicated by the history of America’s uncritical support for the policies of Israel towards the Arabs, which he cannot significantly alter at this point if he wishes to serve another term.  Just read “The Israel Lobby,” by Professors Meirshimer and Walt to understand the forces he is up against. However I am certain that in his second term the President will overhaul US Middle East policy and introduce “The Obama Doctrine,” which will be much fairer and just than anything we have seen from American policy in the Mid-East.  But at present America’s history of always supporting the Israeli government against Arab aspirations, no matter how just, will remain an albatross around the President’s neck and compromise any attempt he makes to play the role of honest broker in the present crisis.


The question then becomes: How should the US go about securing its interests amidst the chaos enveloping the region?  The first thing that our policy makers must do if they are to have any chance of success is to recognize that there is no single policy that can address all the troubles of the region.  The realities on the ground in the three countries in turmoil are quantitatively or qualitatively different. Manwar Muasher, former foreign Minister and deputy Prime Minister of Jordon, had this to say about the Tunisian situation in the Teheran Times:

“The protests were triggered by economic grievances and rising prices, but it’s a mistake to think that the crisis was solely about money—economics alone did not bring people to the streets. The unrest was as much about governance as it was about the economy.  When you look at the slogans used in Tunisia and across the Arab world in recent weeks, few targeted high prices. Rather they accused the government of abandoning its people. There is a high degree of frustration about the lack of good governance, and this is a lesson that must be learned in Tunis and other Arab capitals.”

However Tunisia did not have some of the problems encountered in the other countries, which made their transition of power easier.  For instance the entire population is Sunni Muslim, so there is no sectarian strife based on religious beliefs.  The Islamicist elements in the population, who wish to establish a theocracy and impose Sharia law, have been ruthlessly suppressed; even to the point of cops snatching the Hajeb – or headscarve – from their heads of women walking along the street!

This was all intended to enforce the vision of a secular society envisioned by Habib Bourguiba, who led Tunisia to independence from French colonialism and served as its president for most of the country’s history.  Modeling himself after Kamal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, the first secular Islamic country in history, Hibib cast himself in the role of a modernizing autocrat, not unlike “Peter the Great of Russia”. President Bourguiba understood that the separation of church and state was an essential element in successfully building a modern society.  His successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was also pledged to maintaining the secular character of Tunisian society.



Lebanon has been described as “A chemical equation not a country” by one of its intellectuals, because of its volatile ethnic and religious mix. It is the most diverse country in the region: Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Protestant Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, and Druze are all represented.  Yet in spite of this mix Lebanon was once the most open and secular country in the Middle East.

Known as “The Paris” of the Mid-East” , Beirut was long a favorite hangout of wealthy Europeans, Asians and Arabs.  Once a part of the Turkish dominated Ottoman Empire, which fell apart after World War I, Lebanon became an independent nation in 1943.  During the middle of the twentieth century Beirut was the intellectual and financial capital of the Arab world.  It was a tolerant society where Christians and Muslims lived side by side in a glittering city on the Mediterranean Sea with a bustling night life of great cafes and nightclubs. This was the milieu that attracted the international tourist trade.

However in 1975 trouble came to this Mid-Eastern paradise.  A civil war broke out all over the country, as the conflicting interest of these diverse groups could not longer  be peacefully negotiated.  Beirut became a divided city, with Muslims in the West and Christians in the East.  The once bustling downtown area became a war zone, a “no man’s land” known as “The Green Zone.”


Beirut Lebanon

“Paris Of The Mid-East


There have been several Lebanese wars since then, including two wars with Israel in 1982 and 2006.  The second war resulted in greatly enhanced power for Hezbollah, which is an armed Shiite organization with close ties to Iran.   Know as “The Army Of God,” Hezbollah began as a service organization working in the slums of Beirut attending to the needs of impoverished and powerless  Shiites, who were and ignored by the Sunni dominated Lebanese government – which only looked out for their own.  Since many believe that the organization was founded by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, an elite military unit, it is not surprising that they have emerged as an effective fighting force.  However they are also a potent force in Lebanese politics.

Thus Hezbollah have been able to elect important officials in both the Parliament and the executive branch of government.  Now they have engineered the downfall of the Sunni Prime minister Saad Hariri,  and replaced him with their choice, Najib Miqati.  The ousted Prime Minister Hariri vowed to stay active as leader of the opposition; he said of his defeat “”What has happened is virtually a coup d’etat, a political coup d’etat.”  This development has smashed the Sunni monopoly on power, shocked the Muslim world, and greatly complicates US policy in the region.

Ready to Rumble!

The Army of God

The US response to this development was voiced by Secretary Of State, Hillary Clinton, when she glumly announced that the Hezbollah “Takeover” of Lebanon would “have a clear impact” on US relations with that country.  The US had cast its fate with Saad Hariri, which leaves us the odd man out.  The fact that the Israelis regard Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organization – and Hezbollah considers themselves in a war of resistance against Israel – means that the Israeli’s are liable to treat a Hezbollah led government in Lebanon with the same hostility as they treat the Hamas government on the West Bank.

This would be a diplomatic disaster for the US, for it could well drag us into yet another armed conflict in the Middle-East.  Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah was quick to deny that the new Prime Minister Najib Migati is a Hezbollah candidate; rather he describes Migati as “a centrist.”  Whatever the truth is in this matter, it is the actions of the army that will determine if this change of power stands.  The US should do nothing to try and meddle in that process; let things take their course and express the will of the people.  Beyond this let the United Nations and the Arab League take the lead in resolving and problems that will arise.


The Explosion In Egypt!

Is righteous anger enough to bring effective change??

The situation in Egypt is the most dangerous of them all.  According to eminent academic authorities on the Region such as Professor Shibley Tel Hami, the Anwar Sadat professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Saban Center for Mid-East Policy, “This is the largest popular uprising in the recorded history of Egypt. Even the 1952 overthrow of the Monarchy was an orderly affair.”  Indeed, it was the military who deposed the decadent King Farouk with popular support.  But the present situation is a spontaneous mass uprising which seems to be directed by agitators on Facebook and other internet venues, and as I write the situation borders on anarchy.

As the preeminent Arab power, and close ally of the United States, which means they receive hundreds of millions in military aid from the US, Egypt is the most influential Arab Nation.  From the American point of view the Egyptians are critical allies against the Islamic Jihadists as well as an indispensible partner in maintaining Israeli security.  A breakdown of the political system in Egypt would cast American policy in disarray and invite trouble of all sorts.  The most serious of which would be the rise of Muslim Fundamentalists to prominence.  There are armed Jihadist next door in Algeria and Yemen who are steeled in the fires of struggle and trained for trouble.  All they need is an opportunity and an invitation -“Have guns will travel “appears to be their motto – and the chaotic situation in Egypt offers both.

This is the danger that must be weighed against the virtues of an open democracy.   However the young people in Egypt are tired of hearing this rap; they believe it is a smokescreen that seeks to disguise a criminal police state and justify political repression.  “The old argument is that if you open up the system, the Islamists will take control. This provided the ruling parties justification for keeping the system closed and maintaining a tight grip on power. In Tunisia, it was one person who wasn’t affiliated with an Islamist party or part of an armed group who chose to burn himself out of economic frustration. This undermines the old guard’s thinking that the political system needs to remain tightly controlled” Says Manwar Muasher in the Teheran Times.

The well off, who have travelled abroad  and acquired modern taste in politics as well as clothes, are rejecting the old arguments of military autocrats like Mubarak –  Although they have successfully kept the Muslim Fundamentalists at bay for the entire history of modern Egypt.  The young Egyptian cosmopolites want the sort of open democratic government they see in the advanced countries of the West.  However if the Egyptians allowed their citizens to parade around waving guns at raucous political debates, the way they do in the US, there would be open warfare in the streets.  One could even make a credible argument that a liberal democracy in Egypt  just now would be an invitation to disaster,  because the Jihadist will exploit the situation to create havoc.

In assessing this possibility it is helpful to know that Egypt has been led by military strongmen throughout its modern history; which begins with Egypt’s overthrow of British colonialism, indirectly exercised through a puppet king, in 1952.  From the outset there was a struggle for power between the Theocrats and the secular military men.  Abdel Gamel Nasser, who led the independence movement, was an army officer trained at Sandhurst, the elite British military Academy.  He was a modern secular man and a socialist.  These beliefs shaped the way Nasser envisioned the new society, and his view of the modern secular society brought him into direct conflict with Sayyid Quthb, the brilliant Islamic theologian whose voluminous writings provide the theological justification for the modern Islamic Jihad.

Sayyid Guthb In Nasser’s Prison

Theologian of the Jihadist

Sayyid was the quintessential Theocrat, and as leader of the Muslim Brotherhood he was a power to be reckoned with.  Although they began as a religious organization committed to upholding Islamic values in a corrupt society dominated by  a Coptic Christian upper class, secular bureaucrats, etc, they became involved in the anti-colonial struggle.  However, as the old Chinese saying goes: “They were sleeping in the same bed dreaming different dreams.”  Whereas Colonel Nasser was envisioning a secular socialist state, Sayeed was dreaming of restoring the ancient Caliphate and establishing Sharia Law.  Their dreams could hardly have been further apart, and thus they were bound to clash.

The dispute became so rancorous that Muslim fanatics attempted to assassinate Colonel Nasser, who had now become President of the nation.  The Muslim Brotherhood was crushed, and Nasser hung Sayyid!   Unrepentant, Sayyid kissed the gallows before the hangman put the noose around his neck.  He departed this life with the inner peace of a man who is certain that he will awake in the bosom of Allah.  However,  since that day in 1966, there has been a legacy of hatred between the  Theocrats and the military Autocrats that still simmers just beneath the seemingly placid surface of Muslim society. Occasionally,these antagonistic contradictions explode in violence,  It has been ever thus in the modern history of Islam –as I wrote before the Iraq attack; pointing out that Bin Ladin the passionate Theocrat could never have formed an alliance with Sadam Hussein the ultimate Autocrat.( See: ” The Prophetic Commentary on Iraq”) When viewed from this historical perspective, the invasion of Iraq can be seen as not only criminal but self defeating.

As I have argued elsewhere, the smartest move – based on realpolitique rather than mindless ideology – would have been for the US to form an alliance with Sadam Hussein against Bin Ladin and Al Qaeda!   Had the Bushmen done this we would have saved perhaps a trillion and a half dollars and we would long since have had the head of Osama.  This would have thrown Al Qaeda into disarray and ended the narrative of the invincible Bin Laden, who has attacked “The Great Satan,” plunged a spear in his heart, and lived to laugh about it.  It is impossible to calculate the extent to which this has boosted the morale of Jihadists around the globe, and increased recruitment to their ranks.


The Front Line of Defense against the Jihadist!

President Nasser and Fellow Military Strongman Colonel Gadaffi

The protracted war between the Theocrats and the secular Military Autocrats has been so intense over the last 58 years that every ruler of Egypt has been a military strong man, and they had to constantly keep the Muslim militants in check. They outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and kept the Islamists under close surveillance.  Still, Nasser’s Successor Anwar Sadat, another colonel with combat experience, was assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists during a military parade!  With attempts on the life of Nasser by Muslim fanatics, and the successful killing of President Sadat, and periodic outbreaks of deadly violence by Muslim terrorists, it is no wonder that President Mubarak, yet another colonel sworn to maintaining a secular state, has pursued a policy of heavy handed repression of the Islamicist; which has resulted in restrictions on the personal liberties of the citizenry.

This is the root cause of the popular uprising in Egypt.  Yet when we consider the fact that the “Blind Sheik” who is presently serving life in prison for heading a Jihadist “sleeper cell” in the US who conspired to wreak havoc on New York by blowing up the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, is an Egyptian, as well as five of the Hijackers who crashed planes into the World Train Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, and  the fact that Osama Bin Laden’s second in command is an Egyptian doctor, we can see that Egypt remains an incubator of militant Jihadists who are pledged to the destruction of the US and all of our allies in the Middle East.

Hence the argument that in the contemporary Middle East the choice is between the military Autocrats and the Jihadists is all too real!    The question that confronts American policymakers is whether open democratic systems can effectively combat the Jihadists in the Middle East.  The situation in Pakistan Afghanistan and Iraq is supplying some of the answers to this critical question.  Thus far the Jihadists have not been decisively defeated by the new democratically elected governments.  Some will argue that this is because the elections were corrupt.  Well…duh?

What do you expect in societies with no tradition of modern democratic politics, and thus lack the shared values and political institutions that are critical to democratic governance.  I would argue that the growth of the power presently demonstrated by the Jihadists in Pakistan – which threatens to take over a nuclear armed nation – is the direct result of the rejection of military strongman General Musharif, and his replacement by a democratically elected civilian government.  And President Karsi’s hold on power in Afghanistan is so tenuous he seems scared to venture outside of the Presidential palace, without his private american security forces.

In Iraq internecine religious strife has grown so horrible that a devastated Christian community is fleeing the country. These are highly educated people whose skills  the new Iraqi nation is going to need.  There was no religious strife under Sadam Hussein; it remains to be seen if the new civilian government can suppress it.  The American invasion let that terrible Genie out of the bottle, let’s see if the elected politicians applying the rule of civilian law, written under American guidance, can put the Genie back in the bottle and end the rein of destruction it has caused.In view of these frightening realities, can the United States government simply give a green light to these spontaneous popular uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world with no thought to the unintended consequences?

Well, the ideologues shouting from the sidelines with ready made answers to all these complex problems will only lose debating points should events prove them wrong.  But Barack Obama has the fate of nation’s depending upon his decisions.  Hence prudence dictates that he proceed with extreme caution. As the embattled Egyptian President Honsi Mubarak warned the other day, in a cautionary note to all of the Americans who are quick to support the demands of the demonstrators for democracy: “Be careful what you wish for.”  I shall take a closer look at the character and dynamics of the popular uprisings as a transformative movement in my next commentary on this historic development in the Middle East.



Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

January  30, 2011

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