Parting the Veil
Now is no time to give up on supporting democracy in the Middle East. But to do so, the United States must embrace Islamist moderates.
America’s post-September 11 project to promote democracy in the Middle East has proven a spectacular failure. Today, Arab autocrats are as emboldened as ever. Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, and others are backsliding on reform. Opposition forces are being crushed. Three of the most democratic polities in the region, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories, are being torn apart by violence and sectarian conflict.
Not long ago, it seemed an entirely different outcome was in the offing. As recently as late 2005, observers were hailing the “Arab spring,” an “autumn for autocrats,” and other seasonal formulations. They had cause for such optimism. On January 31, 2005, the world stood in collective awe as Iraqis braved terrorist threats to cast their ballots for the first time. That February, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced multi-candidate presidential elections, another first. And that same month, after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was killed, Lebanon erupted in grief and then anger as nearly one million Lebanese took to the streets of their war-torn capital, demanding self-determination. Not long afterward, 50,000 Bahrainis–one-eighth of the country’s population–rallied for constitutional reform. The opposition was finally coming alive.
But when the Arab spring really did come, the American response provided ample evidence that while Arabs were ready for democracy, the United States most certainly was not. Looking back, the failure of the Bush Administration’s efforts should not have been so surprising. Since the early 1990s, U.S. policymakers have had two dueling and ultimately incompatible objectives in the Middle East: promoting Arab democracy on one hand, and curbing the power and appeal of Islamist groups on the other. In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush declared that in supporting Arab democracy, our “vital interests and our deepest beliefs” were now one. The reality was more complicated. When Islamist groups throughout the region began making impressive gains at the ballot box, particularly in Egypt and in the Palestinian territories, the Bush Administration stumbled. With Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza high on the agenda and a deteriorating situation in Iraq, American priorities began to shift. Friendly dictators once again became an invaluable resource for an administration that found itself increasingly embattled both at home and abroad.
The reason for this divergence in policy revolves around a critical question: What should the United States do when Islamists come to power through free elections? In a region where Islamist parties represent the only viable opposition to secular dictatorships, this is the crux of the matter. In the Middle Eastern context, the question of democracy and the question of political Islam are inseparable. Without a well-defined policy of engagement toward political Islam, the United States will fall victim to the same pitfalls of the past. In many ways, it already has.
The Islamist Dilemma
The “Islamist dilemma” is nothing new. It is the same dilemma that has plagued policymakers since the Algerian debacle of the early 1990s. On December 26, 1991, in that country’s first free legislative elections, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won 47 percent of the vote and was poised to capture a commanding parliamentary majority. The staunchly secular military, claiming to save democracy from itself, intervened, canceling the elections and provoking a brutal civil war that would rage for more than a decade.
After the election results were annulled, the State Department said that it “viewed with concern the interruption of the electoral process” and expressed “hope [that] a way can be found to resume progress.” But the United States stopped well short of outright criticism, saying instead that the military intervention did not actually violate the Algerian constitution. The George H.W. Bush Administration’s indifference to what was a blatant breach of the democratic process seemed a far cry from the lofty rhetoric of a “new world order.” As one State Department official later remarked, “By not saying or doing anything, the Bush Administration supported the Algerian government by default.” Even in hindsight, James Baker, who had been secretary of state at the time, was unrepentant: “Generally speaking, when you support democracy, you take what democracy gives you…If it gives you a radical Islamic fundamentalist, you’re supposed to live with it. We didn’t live with it in Algeria because we felt that the radical fundamentalists’ views were so adverse to what we believe in and what we support, and to what we understood the national interests of the United States to be.”
Such realpolitik was not supposed to have a place in the current Bush Administration. In his second inaugural address, the president declared, “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” Egypt, the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, was to be the centerpiece of the new “forward strategy for freedom.” And for a time, the strategy seemed to bring results. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a March 2005 trip to Cairo to protest the imprisonment of Ayman Nour, a leading liberal figure and head of the Ghad Party. Responding in part to U.S. pressure, President Mubarak announced that Egypt would hold multi-candidate presidential elections for the first time. Emboldened by the changing atmosphere, opposition groups began to assert themselves. In late March, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and most influential opposition group, launched a series of protests calling for greater freedoms and constitutional reform. When the inevitable clash came, thousands of Muslim Brothers were arrested in one of the most extensive government crackdowns on the group in decades.
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