Decision Making at a Crossroads of History: The Test to Western Leaders
U.S. policy failures in the Arab and Muslim worlds are matched by instances of change in Muslim-majority countries that have taken Western leaders by surprise. Yet, in the most recent surprises, the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the most powerful Western leader, President Obama, may still have a chance to change the course of U.S. relations with the Arab world–perhaps even the whole Islamic world. (Arabs represent less than 20 percent of the worldâ€™s 1.5 billion Muslims, but they are the largest ethnic group among them).
However, Obama and his aides need to stop shooting themselves (and America) in the foot. Vice President Biden should apologize to Egyptians for his defense of the imperiled dictator of Egypt. The Obama Administration should clarify its dealing with the Egyptian military chief, General Tantawi, who came for a short visit to Washington the day the Egyptian uprising turned into a full-fledged revolution (January 25, 2011) and left with no American public announcement about his trip. This man is in a position to facilitate Mubarak’s departure, as his Tunisian counterpart did with Ben Ali. Now his tanks and soldiers are in the streets of Egypt. The Obama silence on the nature of the visit could be interpreted by Arabs as double-dealing at a time that requires clarity. Holding the stick from the middle between a people in revolt and a falling authoritarian regime is neither ethical nor rational. Since the U.S. is intensely involved in the Egyptian crisis, the American government should reassure the Egyptians that Tantawi was advised not to use force.
The fall of Ben Ali, like the pending fall of Mubarak, shattered the myth that Arabs neither understand nor want democracy. Today they are dying to end dictatorship. Egyptians, like their Tunisian brothers and sisters, clearly want their oppressive regimes gone and their states remade in response to their nationsâ€™ aspirations. Any ploy to promote political figures from the old regime will face the same fate as the failing attempt by the Tunisian PM to refashion a government with personalities from Ben Ali’s junta. It is time to recognize that the U.S. and European alliance with Arab dictators is coming to an end. Managing the crisis with the old notions of stability while reality is evidently changing reveals impotence and lack of vision at a time when a new chapter of Arab political history is being written.
The stakes are high for America and the West, far beyond Tunisia and Egypt. Indeed, these two countries could be only the first cases in what history will know as the Arab anti-Dictatorship Revolution of 2011. The conditions of high unemployment and political corruption and police abuse that caused the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings are present in many Muslim-majority countries, particularly the Arab region. The expression of people power in Tunisia and Egypt is adding a significant new factor in the conversation about the possibilities of democratic change in the Muslim world. The abstract debate of whether Islam and democracy are compatible is now moot.
The changing Arab political culture compliments the existence of an institutionalized civil society, which isÂ comprised of NGOs, professional syndicates and worker unions in addition to social movements. Moreover, different leaders of political parties outside the ruling factions have had dialogue on political reform since the mid-1990s. The growing capacity to organize explains the quick success of Egyptians and Tunisians to form self-defense committees to provide security when the police in their respective countries abandoned their responsibility. In Egypt, the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood looms large. Western governments have to learn how to cope with this growing Islamist influence. AÂ serious dialogue with the Muslim Brothers should aim to move them in one of two directions: (1) become a Muslim democratic party willing to share power, or (2) follow the model of Turkey’s Gulen Movement, stressing a mission of service and fostering social harmony while allowing members to form or join political parties on their own.
But it would be a mistake to exaggerate the influence of Islamists. Rachid al-Ghannouchi, exiled leader of the Islamist Al-Nahda group, has returned to Tunisia. There were a thousand people waiting to welcome himâ€”hardly an event comparable to the 1979 return of Khomeini to Iran. Al-Nahda will have its rightful place in shaping the transformation of Tunisia from dictatorship to representative government.Â Islamists could come to power in the coming period of representative Arab governments, but the emerging anti-dictatorial culture in the Arab world will check any authoritarian tendencies.
Arabs are achieving political emancipation despite brutal suppression. Connecting with the Arab masses at this critical juncture will only ease Western relations with future Arab governments. However, this requires abandoning the stereotype that Arabs only understand charisma and force. It also requires allowing the Arabs to abide by the results of free and fair elections and not have them overturned by outside forces as in the case of the Palestinian elections.
Assistant Professor of Islam and World Affairs