Wednesday, February 2, 2011

We've seen this story before

From Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen and possibly Jordan the dominoes in the Middle East fall. The fear for the U.S. is whether this is about reform—or revolution, such as what occurred in Iran, a country that remains a thorn in our side. There has been a great deal of talk about poverty being the cause of unrest, and the breeding ground of militant Islam. However, the idea that if everyone in the Islamic world was well-off and contented there would be little desire to rock the boat has little empirical evidence to support it. It also should be pointed out that Osama Bin Laden was the son of wealth, and most of the 9-11 hijackers were of well-off, educated stock. The idea that “democracy” would provide a safe outlet for letting off steam also ignores the fact that in the Middle East “democracy” has very little in common with the Western idea of it. Despite all the fanfare in Egypt, “mainstream” Islamic clergy are opposing instituting true democracy because they perceive it as threatening to their authority. In Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Council is the power behind the scenes, and it’s ridiculous president certainly is not allowed to make policy without first getting approval from the council. In Iraq, if by chance the Shiite majority had eventually overthrown Saddam, we would not have seen “democracy” but a country governed by a Shiite strongman, or an Islamic state based on the Iranian model.

The reality is that like the French and Russian revolutions, what starts out as a “peasant” revolt ends as merely a transfer of power between elites, whether from the upper or the educated middle-classes. After 9-11, Martin Kramer, as editor of the Middle East Quarterly, wrote that:

“(Militant Islam) is the vehicle of counter-elites, people who, by virtue of education and/or income, are potential members of the elite, but who for some reason or another get excluded. Their education may lack some crucial prestige-conferring element; the sources of their wealth may be a bit tainted. Or they may just come from the wrong background. So while they are educated and wealthy, they have a grievance: their ambition is blocked, they cannot translate their socio-economic assets into political clout. Islamism is particularly useful to these people, in part because by its careful manipulation, it is possible to recruit a following among the poor, who make valuable foot-soldiers.”

It is obvious that we can also extrapolate from this that many people who desire “change” in their government also come from this “stock.” We are almost certainly seeing this on the streets of Cairo, and to a lesser extent in Yemen, where most of the protestors (at least for now) seem to be older men from the intelligentsia. The powerlessness that many people on the street feel is also explained by the repression by the police (secret or otherwise), who seem to be omnipresent in practically every facet of life, much like the Gestapo and KGB. The riots in Egypt were given a face by Khaled Said, who was beaten to death by two undercover police officers in Alexandria; it seems that the U.S. is not the only country where “suspects” can be beaten indiscriminately, although in Egypt and other Arab states torture of political incorrigibles is also a frequent occurrence.

How much “change” can the Middle East stand? Iran is not really a true barometer since it really is a theocracy masquerading as a democracy. It remains to be seen if Iraq’s fledgling democracy can stand long once U.S. forces leave altogether; with the return of Muqtada al-Sadr from his religious “sabbatical” in Iran and his known hostility to the present government, the potential for civil war and change of regime cannot be excluded. But more to the point of this discussion, the U.S. tends to forget that they are dealing with people with their own ideas and who may be completely hostile to the Western way of thinking; pushing the present government of Egypt for change may appear to be only a cynical gesture in the eyes of Egyptians who would blame the West—and the U.S. in particular—for propping-up a repressive dictator. We’ve seen this story before.

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