November 22, 2011

The Arab Winter Approaches

In Egypt, one tyranny begets another.

The revolutions against Arab autocracies—dubbed the “Arab Spring”—have been greeted in America with bipartisan celebration. To President Obama, the uprising in Egypt reflected the yearning of Egyptians for “the same things that we all want: a better life for ourselves and our children, and a government that is fair and just and responsive.” Visiting Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, Senator John McCain enthused, “[Libyans] have paid an enormous price for their freedom,” and have earned “a chance for all Libyans to know lasting peace, dignity, and justice.” And Senator Joseph Lieberman wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Throughout the Middle East, we see the narrative of violent Islamist extremism being rejected by tens of millions of Muslims who are rising up and peacefully demanding lives of democracy, dignity, economic opportunity, and involvement in the modern world.”

This enthusiasm confirms the dominant narrative that explains both the causes of jihadist terror and the solutions to the problems that have given rise to it. President George W. Bush articulated that account in his second inaugural speech: “For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny—prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder—violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.”

Freedom and Islam in Egypt
Photo credit: Erik, 'parked in Cairo thesis days' (via flickr)

Once these tyrannies are removed, as seemingly has occurred in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, and democratic institutions take their place, freedom and economic opportunity will flourish, the swamps of jihadist terror will be drained, and terrorist outfits like al Qaeda will be marginalized.

Now that the dictators are gone, however, recent developments in these countries are calling into question this optimistic analysis. In Tunisia’s first democratic election following the revolts, an Islamist party, Ennahda, took 90 out of 217 seats on the new National Constituent Assembly. Ennahda was inspired by the Muslim Brothers, the world’s oldest Islamist party whose credo is “God is our objective; the Quran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; and death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations.” Despite these roots, Ennahda founder Rachid Gannouchi has assured the West and Tunisian secularists that his party is moderate and does not intend to subordinate the freedoms of Tunisians to Sharia law. However, Ennahda counts among its supporters the more radical Salafists like Hizb at-Tahrir who do want strict adherence to Sharia. Additionally, Ennahda finds broad support among the poorer, rural Tunisians who are more conservative than the French-influenced cosmopolitans living on the coast.

Gannouchi himself sometimes sounds like a fundamentalist, as when he told listeners at an election rally, “God wants you to vote for the party that will protect your faith.” Consistent with this pledge, there have been several recent portents of a broader support for Islamist beliefs. Salafists stormed a university in Sousse to protest its refusal to admit a veiled female student. A group of Muslims tried to convert a church into a mosque, and though dispersed by police, they have been invited by government representatives to ask the faith ministry to change the church into a mosque.

There was a violent protest against a television screening of the animated movie Persepolis, a negative portrayal of the Iranian Revolution in which Allah is depicted as a cartoon. To chants of “Your god has been insulted, come out and defend him!” a mob attempted to burn down the house of the station’s owner. While disavowing the attack, Ennahda called the screening a “provocation” that was equally responsible for the violence. Understandably, secular and liberal Tunisians are skeptical about Ennahda’s promises of moderation, which perhaps are tactical deceptions, given the party’s more hard-line base and Muslim Brothers roots. Najib Chebbi, for example, who heads Tunisia’s Progressive Democratic Party, has called Ennahda “a nondemocratic force.” He also told the Wall Street Journal, “I think they have an ideological project they haven't acknowledged yet.”

What will happen now that the dictators are gone?

Next door in Libya, the continuing disorder in the wake of Gaddafi’s fall has created even more opportunities for Islamist domination. We should remember that the epicenter of the rebellion, eastern Libya and the towns of Darnah and Benghazi––where recently the flag of al Qaeda was seen flying over the courthouse–– has supplied proportionately more fighters against our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other country. These veterans of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) have now gained access to weapons looted from arms depots, including assault rifles, machine guns, mines, grenades, antitank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, and thousands of SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles capable of bringing down commercial airliners. Some of these missiles reportedly have been delivered to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Also troublesome is the future security of the ten tons of mustard gas and dumps of raw nuclear fuel left over from Gaddafi’s WMD programs. Nor is the LIFG a fringe group. On the contrary, its fighters played a major role in the takeover of Tripoli and the capture of Gaddafi’s compound. Its commander, Abd Al-Hakim Belhadj, is now a major force in the National Transitional Council (NTC) and the commander of the Tripoli garrison.

Equally worrisome, like the other militias in Libya, the LIFG veterans are keeping their weapons, contrary to earlier pledges to surrender them to the interim government. In the east, some of the largest and well armed of these militias with ties to Islamist groups are forming political parties. The NTC is unlikely to be a secularist counterweight to the Islamists. Its draft constitutional charter proclaims, “Islam is the religion of the state, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia).” On “liberation day,” after Gaddafi’s death, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the chairman of the NTC and Libya’s interim leader, confirmed these intentions when he told the crowd to shouts of “Allahu Akbar” that “We are an Islamic country. We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion.” One of his first pledges was to end the old regime’s ban on polygamy, since “the law is contrary to Sharia and must be stopped.” In a country divided by tribe and region, with virtually no political or civic institutions, Islam provides the only unifying force for the new government.

Finally, the prognosis for liberal democracy is no better in Egypt, the most populous Muslim country in the region. Long gone are the images of the tweeting “Facebook kids” that charmed many in the West into thinking a liberal democracy would arise out of the ashes of Mubarak’s rule. The biggest beneficiary of regime change has been the Muslim Brothers, which is now poised to dominate the forthcoming elections in November given their superior organization and unified aims compared to the more numerous, ideologically fragmented secular parties. Despite the fantasies of many in the United States, the Muslim Brothers have not evolved into “moderates” that can be integrated into a democratic government and restrained by electoral accountability.

Faith-sanctioned intolerance is not compatible with a pluralistic democracy.

Consider last year’s address by Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad al-Badi’, translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute: “The Muslim nation has the means [to bring about] improvement and change. . . It knows the way, the methods, and the road signs, and it has a practical role model in Allah’s Messenger, [the Prophet Muhammad] . . . who clarified how to implement the values of the [Koran] and the Sunna at every time and in every place.” Al-Badi’ is clear about how this “change” will be brought about: Muslim regimes “crucially need to understand that the improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death just as the enemies pursue life.” These remarks are consistent with the Muslim Brothers draft platform of 2007, which proclaimed that “Islam is the official state religion” and “the Islamic sharia is the main source for legislation.” Given this Islamist perspective, the soothing words of moderation and non-violence coming from the Muslim Brothers may represent, as with Ennahda in Tunisia, a temporary tactical deception necessary until their power can be consolidated and their true aims revealed.

Evidence suggests that many Egyptians are sympathetic to the Muslim Brothers’ programs. In a Pew survey from last year, 84 percent of Egyptians support the death penalty for apostates and 82 percent support stoning adulterers, beliefs sanctioned by Sharia but inconsistent with the foundational individual rights of liberal democracy. Worse yet, violence against the Coptic Christian minority has increased in recent months. This year, 80 Christians have been killed and numerous churches attacked. Some of the most deadly violence occurred in the Maspero area of Cairo in October, when armored military vehicles deliberately ran over Copts protesting previous attacks on churches and Christians in Edfu, Sool, and Imbaba. Other soldiers attacked protestors with cries of “Allahu Akbar” and curses directed at “infidels.” Civilians merely watched and cheered.

Such violence is not surprising, given the traditional Islamic disdain for Christians expressed by Egyptian clerics and endorsed by ordinary Muslims, who in recent years have initiated most of the attacks on Copts, such as the massacre in el-Kosesh in January 2000. In a recent widely circulated video, Sheik Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Cairo’s prestigious Al Azhar University, who is lauded in the West as a moderate, called Christians “infidels,” which he defined as “those who declare God is the Christ, son of Mary.” He also quoted Koran 9:29: “Fight…the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] until they pay the Jizya [tribute] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” Such faith-sanctioned intolerance is hardly likely to be compatible with a pluralistic democracy that respects the rights of all individuals regardless of their sect or creed.

“The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion...”

The signs of a surging Islamism in the wake of the revolutions, however, are dismissed by Western commentators who speak of  “moderate Islamists” and see nothing to fear in the popularity of the Muslim Brothers and their offshoots in Tunisia and Libya. France’s preeminent scholar of political Islam, Olivier Roy, has proclaimed, “This is not an Islamic revolution,” and claims that those who overthrew Mubarak “do not see in Islam an ideology capable of creating a better world.” The Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East expert, Marwan Muasher, concurs: “Islam as a solution is not enough for them; people want jobs and better lives and will demand results.” This optimism reflects again the dominant narrative sketched above: that the same lack of political freedom and economic opportunity that bred terror has now led to the overthrow of dictators. In a pluralistic democracy, the argument goes, Islamist parties will not be able to deliver these material boons, and the voters will punish their failure, leading to either the Islamists’ marginalization, or the moderation of their ideology in order to win votes.

This interpretation, however, depends on a distinction between traditional Islam––which presumably can co-exist with the full suite of liberal democratic principles­­––and an Islamism endorsed only by a minority. But traditional Islam has always been thoroughly political, and the subordination of the state to religion has always been at the heart of Islamic as well as Islamist political programs; and it is an idea with wide support among Muslims.

For example, 60 percent of Egyptians in a Pew poll from earlier this year said that state laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Koran. Given this broad sympathy for a key Islamist goal, the exigencies of sharing power in a consensual government will not necessarily lead Islamist parties to moderate their claims for the priority of Islamic doctrine and law. As the Gloria Center’s Barry Rubin points out, that certainly didn’t happen in Iran after 1979, or the West Bank after the Oslo agreement in 1993, or with Hezbollah in Lebanon, or with Hamas in Gaza. It is more likely that Islamist participation in democratic institutions is a temporary tactic in the long-term strategy of creating an Islamic government similar to that in Iran.

Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan once said, “Democracy is like a train. We shall get out when we arrive at the station we want.” As we survey the consequences of the Arab Spring, it seems more likely that the “station” will not be one that we, in the West, will want.


Bruce S. Thornton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He received his BA in Latin in 1975 and his PhD in comparative literature–Greek, Latin, and English–in 1983, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. Thornton is currently a professor of classics and humanities at California State University in Fresno, California. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays and reviews on Greek culture and civilization and their influence on Western civilization. His next book, to be released in July 2014 by the Hoover Institution Press, is titled Democracy's Dangers and Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama..


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