The End of ‘Islamic Democracy’

Top Stories of the Year: #4

With the beginning of the Arab Spring about three years ago, we entered the post-9/11 era—an era in which the biggest story is no longer the conflict between radical Islam and the West but instead is the Arab world’s conflict with itself.

This is the year in which the Arab Spring reached an unhappy denouement in Egypt with the re-establishment of the old regime under new leadership. But the route by which it got there is very significant.

In 2012, I wrote about “The Old Regime and the Egyptian Revolution,” a reference to Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the French Revolution, in which he observed that the French Revolution ended up producing essentially the same system as under Louis XIV, just with new leaders at the top. Much the same thing has been happening in Egypt, but at that time, it looked like the old regime was reconstituting itself in an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. This gave us the worst of both worlds: the repressiveness of the old regime, but without the secularism.

That story dramatically reversed itself this year, as public resentment against the increasingly oppressive Muslim Brotherhood led to what I called the “Do-Over Revolution“: “while Egypt’s liberals worked side-by-side with the Brotherhood to bring down the Mubarak regime two years ago, the Tamarod movement gives the liberals a chance to show the strength of their support independent of the Islamists.”

The result was estimated by some to be the largest mass demonstrations in history. The rebellion against the Muslim Brotherhood resulted in a popularly-backed coup that deposed Mohamed Morsi and ended with a ban on the Brotherhood. This was made possible by a shift in alliance on the part of Egypt’s liberals.

The Egyptians…do not have a morally and politically legitimate existing order to restore. They have to create legitimate institutions for the first time, largely from scratch. That is why the pro-freedom constituency in Egypt has been forced to triangulate, as it were, between the Islamists and the military. At the beginning of the revolution, and in the early stages when the remnants of the old regime were still clinging to power, the liberals made common cause with the Islamists against the military. Now they’re making common cause with the military against the Islamists. That in itself is important because it draws a more natural dividing line; the Islamists are a greater long-term threat to freedom than the military and the old regime.

I pointed out that while a coup was probably necessary, it is not the ideal way to restore liberty. My hope was that the old regime would ally itself with secular liberals, producing some hybrid in which some of the institutions of the old dictatorship remained, but with a greater degree of political freedom and a greater voice for the people in their own government.

No dice. The military has since turned against Egypt’s secular liberals and reimposed the old regime, with the Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Force, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, replacing Hosni Mubarak at the center of a cult of personality.

I have argued that the Arab Spring was partly a result of the collapse of Arab Nationalism, the system of secular dictatorship introduced in Egypt in the 1950s by Gamal Abdel Nasser. The weakness of this system was exposed by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and pretty much every leader targeted by the Arab Spring—Ben-Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Gadhafi in Libya, Assad in Syria—was modeled on Nasser. Yet Egypt under Sisi has basically been rebuilding Nasserism.

To be sure, the old secular dictatorship is better than Islamist one, which is why I proposed a “new Kirkpatrick Doctrine,” modeled after the policy advocated by Reagan’s UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick during the Cold War.

The “Kirkpatrick Doctrine” advocated support for all opponents of Communism, including authoritarian regimes in what we used to call the “Third World.”

From a long-term perspective, after the end of the Cold War, the Kirkpatrick Doctrine has been vindicated. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a liberating event that did so much for the cause of freedom and representative government that it makes our short-term support for “friendly dictators” look like it was worth it. That’s especially true when we observe how many of those “friendly” dictatorships—Chile, El Salvador, Argentina, Taiwan, South Korea, South Africa—have since made a peaceful transition to become free societies. Meanwhile, it is the old leftover Marxists, in places like Cuba, North Korea, and Zimbabwe, who are still stubbornly clinging to power….

[W]e have to make the same decision in Egypt that we had to make during the Cold War: are we willing to support one dictatorship, hopefully temporarily, in order to prevent a worse, more dangerous dictatorship from taking root? In this case, the greater danger isn’t Communism but Islamism. We have to decide whether the Islamist rule the Muslim Brotherhood was attempting to impose in Egypt would have been worse, both for us and for the Egyptians, than the current military regime….

So that’s our foreign policy choice: a Carteresque policy of hand-wringing, myopic focus on “human rights,” versus a new Kirkpatrick Doctrine against Islamism.

Still, the most positive thing about the Arab Spring was that the people who are naturally on our side, the Arab world’s secular liberals, were finally “in the field” and having an impact on events, rather than being sidelined in a battle between nationalist dictators and Islamists. Now, the young secular liberals are withdrawing again.

Well, not entirely. I also wrote about the young people who constitute the best hope for the future of the Muslim world, from Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan to Ali Ahmed (actually, Ali Mohammed) in Egypt. But it will take a few decades for these extraordinary young people—and hopefully a lot more like them—to grow up.

I could use the reversal in Egypt as an opportunity to criticize the foreign policy of the Obama administration, which has managed to end up being hated by every side: by the Brotherhood, by the liberals, and by the regime (which is now forging an alliance with Vladimir Putin). There is certainly much more we could have done to encourage a better outcome.

But what is much more important is what the Arabs and Muslims are doing on their own. In that regard, there is one big positive development in this year’s events: the mass popular rejection of Islamism. Remember that the military’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood was backed by the largest mass protests in history. We saw the same thing with the Taksim protests in Turkey.

The implications for the region are very important. Turkey had been held up as a model of “Islamic Democracy”: the coexistence of “moderate” Islamism with civil liberties and representative government. The current protests, as one observer concludes, “signal the final demise of an Islamic discourse of civic pluralism and the failure of Turkey’s Islamic politics to protect the integrity of democratic citizenship rights.”

That’s one of the big stories of this year—not the reconstitution of Arab Nationalism in Egypt, but the mass rejection of “Islamic Democracy” when it turned out that the “Islamic” part wasn’t compatible with the “democracy” part.

The only place this has produced a relatively satisfactory result is in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began. The “moderate” Islamist Ennahda party tried to do what the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt, triggering a wave of popular rejection that resulted in the negotiation of a deal in which they have been forced to relinquish power, but without a reimposition of the old dictatorship. I always expected that we would see the best results from the Arab Spring in Tunisia, and it looks like that’s all we have left. (That, and the moderate, gradual reforms under the monarchy in Morocco.)

The worst result is in Syria, where we have seen the most violent collapse of a revolution into a conflict between a bloodthirsty secular butcher and totalitarian Islamic terrorists. This has happened, not because of the passivity of the Obama administration, but through their active betrayal of the secular opposition. That is a much more serious issue—and a higher item in our countdown.

Outside the Arab world, there has been some other good news. Early in the year, I wrote about what went right in Africa, which was long written off as a basket case. Later in the year, I wrote about the emergence of a set of global best practices for achieving prosperity, the centerpieces of which are free markets and the rule of law. Along the way, I’ve been charting the gradual conversion of Paul David Hewson, otherwise known as Bono, the rock-star turned humanitarian turned preacher of capitalism. No, really: “Rock star preaches capitalism…. Sometimes I hear myself, and I just can’t believe it.” I can. It’s the only honest reaction to the evidence and the only course for a sincere humanitarian who really wants the world to rise up out of poverty.

The current administration in Washington may be doing little to help either the Arab world’s rejection of Islamism or the global adoption of the best practices of capitalism, but these trends are too big to be stopped by the perverse truculence of one American administration.

Now if only we could bring some of these “best practices” back home. But that is the subject of the next item in our countdown.

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