Seeking democracy, settling for caliphate

Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are a clear signal for a long-term shift in global relationships. This could be the new Cold War.

egypt riots 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
egypt riots 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Democracy is defined by most as the people’s power (from the Greek roots of demos-kratos), but power has eluded the people in North Africa and most of the Middle East for centuries. The notion of democracy as it is known in its Western incarnation is incompatible with present-day North Africa and the Middle East. Culturally, institutionally and religiously, democracy has not been able to gain a toehold, with one exception – Israel.
The interesting thing is that people in the region do rise up every now and then, yet freedom and democracy remain elusive.
Popular uprisings are also not immune to internal or external manipulation. By their very nature, they lack a certain command and control. Leadership is shared. Groups with divergent points of view join forces to face a single enemy. The outcome of most uprisings (known as revolutions if they succeed) is unpredictable. It is common, though, that the people have a singular aim – change – without having defined the details.
Revolutions can be bloody business.
Often, the power vacuum is filled by thugs, warlords, strongmen or military dictators. The ever-so-brief flicker of the intelligentsia’s participation in the popular movement comes to an end as all diverging opinions are snuffed out and a singular path identified by a narrow group with the least to lose or the most to gain.
THIS BRINGS us to the current Middle East and North African crises, in which Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are in the midst of popular uprisings.
Locally, the smart money is on some sort of weak interim coalition government which within a year or two will lead to fundamentalist governing bodies, not unlike those in Iran or the Gaza Strip – or, for that matter, Lebanon. The pattern and blueprint has been established, and we know that it works.
The exception is Turkey. It has been able to achieve its transformation through democratic processes and without bloodshed, while strengthening its economic and international influence.
One may look deeply into one’s crystal ball for a long-term projection based on today’s realities. One such reality is that the Middle East and North Africa are being swept by organized fundamentalism, funded by friendly powers. We need to acknowledge the possibility of dealing with fundamentalists reigning over portions of Asia and Africa. While some key relationships may initially change between the Middle East, North African countries and the West, the dependencies are deep, especially economically. The world still needs oil.
The Middle East and North Africa still need Western products and services.
The balance of power may gradually change, however, as China and Russia move in to fill the vacuum.
The impact of such a significant fundamentalist bloc will be felt across the globe. It will be experienced first by Israel, which will bear the brunt of this tsunami, then by Europe, India, Russia and North America. Japan, China and South America will not feel the impact as much. Islamists in the West, India and select countries in Central Asia will continue to organize themselves and have the support of the Middle East and North African fundamentalist block. We can speculate that such a bloc could form a Sunni caliphate with converging interests that could have a global impact on economics, natural resources, culture, security, agriculture and so on.
A tangential impact of such a scenario may be the hastening of Iran’s current transformation from an autocracy to a military state. In fact (in 10 to 15 years), Iran could very well find itself on the same side as Israel in such a scenario, as the Shi’ite Persians are despised by even moderate Sunni Arabs. This is evident today – as a key regional power, the Iranians have some serious conflicts with the Egyptians, the Saudis and others in the Gulf over nuclear development and attempts at regional domination.
Historically, Anglo-American support for Islamist movements in the region – to either curb nationalism or divert gravitation toward the Soviet Union – has only served to strengthen such a scenario.
And as we desperately seek to secure oil and natural resources for our future, we will have to forge a new relationship with a bloc that sees the majority of the world as infidels. This scenario certainly sets the stage for a long-term Cold Warlike situation. Unlike the previous cold wars however, the two sides will be dependent on one another.
The writer is a senior partner at Cyrus Echo, a public policy and international relations firm in Ottawa.