Whose new Middle East?

The democracy the region has right now is confined to Facebook messages and chanting crowds.

Tunisian Protest 311 Reuters (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tunisian Protest 311 Reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One thing almost everybody seems to agree on about the Middle East today is that a revolution is under way that can only make it a freer, more democratic, better place than it is now.
That’s certainly how Barack Obama, after a little hesitation, viewed it when he urged Hosni Mubarak to step aside. Last week, the US pledged $150 million to make democracy work in Egypt, which is so little that it can only mean Washington is confident of the outcome. Or British Prime Minister David Cameron, who when visiting Cairo last week declared: “This is people who want to have the sort of basic freedoms that we take for granted in the UK.”
More unequivocally, that’s the view among Western pundits. Look at Roger Cohen gushing at being on the barricades of a Facebook revolution while visiting an apartment above Tahrir Square that acted as the social networking headquarters for the opposition.
Among the revolutionaries themselves, from Benghazi and Bahrain, democracy and freedom have encouragingly emerged as the clarion call. At least among the ones who speak English well enough to be interviewed by CNN.
But, strangely, the region’s turmoil is being cheered on as a democratic revolution by some unlikely characters. The television preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi came back to Egypt for the first time in almost half a century to throw his support to an ostensibly secular uprising. The Muslim Brotherhood has joined hands with the Tahrir opposition, too. “Islam is compatible with democracy,” Essam el-Errian, a Brotherhood official, told NPR Radio, adding, however, that “our democracy will be unique because it joined a morality, worship and also we can add to this democracy our Islamic spirit.”
Iran’s state television aired the news of Mubarak’s resignation with the headline “Between two revolutions: Iran 1979 and Egypt 2011.”
THERE ARE a number of myths that have been created or resurrected since Muhammad Bouazizi set himself and the Middle East aflame. One is that Facebook has been the tool that awakened the somnolent masses. It’s undeniable that it has played a role, but the opposition has coalesced very well in places that don’t have it (Libya, with a penetration rate of 2.8 percent of the population, probably mostly regime supporters) and remained placid in places that do (United Arab Emirates, 34.4%). The Syrian regime, which knows as well as any how to suppress dissent, thinks so little of Facebook that it lifted its long-standing ban on it.
Another myth is that the masses are the repository of great wisdom and reason. If Egypt or Iraq is dysfunctional, the blame can be squarely laid on the leaders or nefarious Western influence. If the masses rise up, the results can only be good, unless of course the bad old regime or the West intervenes. A look at the blogosphere, a font of misinformation and misunderstanding, should lay that to rest.
But the big myth is the inevitability of history. Islamists are confident God is on their side and the long march of the Muslim faith from the first forays out of Mecca to the glory days of the caliphate will ultimately lead to a final victory. Okay, there have been a couple of setbacks along the way – the Crusades, the Mongol sacking of Baghdad, the rise of the West – but true believers never lose sight of the inevitable trajectory. As Iran’s leaders constantly remind their countrymen, and with a fair amount of justice, the West is in decline.
It’s easy for a nonbeliever to make light of this, especially as the Muslim world is more likely to find itself bullied and abused by Asia over the next couple of centuries rather than arising triumphant. But Westerners have their own set of credos that – being Westerners ourselves – we have a harder time examining critically. We see history as an initially faint but increasingly muscular process, bringing humankind into an age of democracy, tolerance, equality and rationalism.
One of the milestones that lately has been cited is the revolutions of 1848, which much like the Middle East today, saw one European country after another swept up in rebellion. Of course, the revolutions were all failures (except Denmark’s). More recently, the collapse of communism didn’t produce prosperous democracies all around; indeed, Russia seems to be slowly sinking back into autocracy even though it has all the ingredients of a democratic society.
It’s not just that one side has it wrong – they both do. To put a politically correct and academic spin on the old proverb “Man plans, God laughs,” let’s say, “Humanity theorizes, history revises.”
For now, it looks like the democrats have the upper hand. But not by very much. Tunisia is still aboil weeks after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was dispatched into exile. Egypt has so far witnessed nothing more democratic than a military coup. Not a single king, the antithesis of democracy, has been forced off the throne.
Democracy is a good catchall word, one that can be used with equal authenticity by secular protesters to describe (for lack of any better term) whatever kind of society they envision after their hated despot is gone, or by Islamists who mean a democracy of believers united and liberated by faith. Even if many in the Arab world are thinking of democracy as it is conventionally understood in the West, the hard and enduring work of practicing it – free and fair elections, civic institutions, an independent media, the rule of law and a culture of criticism and tolerance – none of these things has emerged. The democracy the Middle East has right now is confined to Facebook messages and chanting crowds.
Under the circumstances, it’s understandable that Israel has been one of the few doubters about the New Middle East being so loudly hailed in the West. It could all result in Jeffersonian democracies – liberal, prosperous and progressive – stretching from the Atlantic coast to Afghanistan. But the odds are much better that it will end up something very different. Being in the thick of it, Israel doesn’t have the luxury of idealistically assuming the best.
The writer is executive business editor at The Media Line. His book Israel: The Knowledge Economy and Its Costs will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.