Two schools of popular thought seem to be emerging in response to the current explosive situation in Egypt:
One, this is a long-overdue spasm of democracy in a region starved for it. The sham elections will be at an end. The dictators in all-but-name-only will fade into history sooner rather than later. This is good news for the United States, as democracy has a chance to survive when it’s not being imposed by us at the end of a war.
Orrrrrrrr . . .
Two, this is terrible news for the United States. A forced succession of power at this moment in history will probably lead to a group like the Muslim Brotherhood taking control of Egypt, even if through theoretically democratic means.
As is often the case, these seemingly-contrasting takes may both turn out to be correct.
The reality is that a lurch toward something approaching a real democracy in the Egypt of January, 2011, will probably result in a more theological government than the relatively secular Mubarak regime. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood, while not good, could be much worse. This is the same organization that more radical Muslims (Bin Laden, et al) have long deemed to have grown too moderate. Yes, there are loose ties to terrorist groups, but at least the Brotherhood has officially renounced violence as a means of achieving its goals. Again, this is all relative, but even that minor point strikes me as a major plus when contrasted against the preferences of more radical organizations in the area.
As for a theological takeover, a few commentators have thrown out comparisons to the 1979 Revolution in Iran in regards to the latest turmoil in Egypt. However, there’s an exceptionally important distinction to make between the two events.
Despite some Americans’ belief to the contrary, Iranians are not Arabs. More to the point, Iranians are predominantly Shi’ite. The ‘79 Revolution was, naturally, a Shi’ite-driven, violent transfer of power.
But Iran is a sectarian exception to the rule set by region adjacent to it. In the Middle East and in Arab North Africa, Sunnis are the vast majority in nearly all nations, aside from Iraq, Bahrain, and – surprise, surprise – Israel.
Therefore, the ouster of the Shah in ‘79 never could have caused a “Domino Effect”-like scenario. While Shia and Sunni may seem largely indistinguishable from the comfort of our distant American living rooms, the truth is that there is longstanding animosity between the two major Islamic sects in the Arab world. A Shi’ite-fueled revolution anywhere, much less one in a non-Arab state, was very unlikely to inspire a Sunni nation under the thumb of a pseudo-dictatorship to throw off the shackles of oppression.
Flash-forward three decades. Egypt is in the midst of an internal crisis. I personally believe that it’s almost inevitable that we’re going to see an imminent transfer of power spawned largely by frustrations among rank-and-file Sunni citizens who feel as though their civil rights have been curtailed by Hosni Mubarak.
Other nations that fit a similar theological / political profile may respond in kind, with shows of support and solidarity that quickly morph into mini-revolutions in their own right. Even as I type this on Saturday, embryonic movements are incubating in Yemen and Tunisia, the latter of which already having the requisite power vacuum. Keep an eye on Algeria and Saudi Arabia as well.
I said before that both schools of thought are probably right: One is the short-term outcome, the other the long-term.
The hard part comes first. Things will get much more complicated for the next few years if Mubarak is gone. As the old saying goes, he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch. After all, it was his predecessor (the assassinated Anwar Sadat) who turned his back on the Soviets and threw Egypt’s lot in with the United States in a critical reversal. We’ve had a soft alliance ever since.
Why is that important?
Because, when the Muslim Brotherhood takes over the country with the eleventh-largest army in the world, it will have the benefit of modern American equipment, as well as thirty years of pent-up frustration over an uneasy peace with Israel fostered by the “illegitimate” Sadat / Mubarak governments.
There is some good news.
Over the course of the next several decades, a democratized Middle East would help stabilize and secularize (or at least moderate) the region to a much greater extent than it exists today. To oversimplify it, a functional, healthy democracy has a much harder time going to war (especially against another democracy) than does a strong-armed dictatorship.
Secondly, democracies tend to foster a more introspective populace that will have an easier time transitioning from a tribal mentality.
It’s easy to say that religious zealotry is the problem – and that’s true, to an extent. However, tribal cultural norms were ingrained centuries before Islam existed. A provincial, sometimes violent tribalism that shuts out ideas and ideals from the industrialized world operates in concert with zealotry to form a dangerous combination.
To look at it from another perspective: We have our own religious zealots in the United States. But we also have a secular republic with robust free speech protections. Because of the cultural / political aspect of our society, our zealotry is almost always limited merely to annoyance or inconvenience (with the very, very occasional violent act).
Zealots are the sunlight. We’re the ants. Democratic ideals rob zealots of the magnifying glass with which they burn us alive.
To be sure, we won’t see something mirroring our First Amendment coming to Saudi Arabia anytime soon. This is a process that will take two or three generations. Perhaps more.
There is one absolutely essential reason to root for the transformation to begin at once, however.
None of the Arab states in the Middle East currently have nuclear weapons. Sadly, it’s probably just a matter of time before one or more of them does.*
If living with a Middle East that has the Bomb is an inevitability, I would rather that eventuality come to pass in a democratized region, rather than the hotbed of unrest that simmers today.
There are no great outcomes to this situation. Mubarak isn’t sustainable. Democratic reforms will likely mean something approaching a popularly-elected theocracy in the short term. Moreover, an Egyptian domino falling could very well mean a replay of these events in several other Arab nations in the months ahead.
We may be forced to stomach what comes to pass by deeming these events necessary growing pains. Getting from the tumultuous “Point A” of the Middle East as we’ve known it since the late 40’s to a “Point B” of the neoconservative theory (fantasy?) of a beneficial democratic Arab world won’t be easy. If we do, it certainly won’t happen via nation-building military intervention on our part, as the neocons hoped.
Instead, what’s happening now could be step one in an unfortunately lengthy – but necessarily organic – process that finally drags an ancient region kicking and screaming into what those in the West consider the modern world.