The Crossroads Of The Arab World

Fouad Ajami has a very lengthy but astute look at how events in Iraq are changing the Arab world. Arab Shi’ites and Kurds have long been oppressed minorities across the Arab world, and the idea that Iraq would give Shi’ites and Kurds not only a voice at the table, but a chance to shape policy has the old guard within the Sunni Arab majority worried that the crumbling foundations that have kept the autocratic Arab governments together will finally collapse:

The drumbeats against Iraq that originate from the League of Arab States and its Egyptian apparatchiks betray the panic of an old Arab political class afraid that there is something new unfolding in Iraq–a different understanding of political power and citizenship, a possible break with the culture of tyranny and the cult of Big Men disposing of the affairs–and the treasure–of nations. It is pitiable that an Egyptian political class that has abdicated its own dream of modernity and bent to the will of a pharaonic regime is obsessed with the doings in Iraq. But this is the political space left open by the master of the realm. To be sure, there is terror in the streets of Iraq; there is plenty there for the custodians of a stagnant regime in Cairo to point to as a cautionary tale of what awaits societies that break with “secure” ways. But the Egyptian autocracy knows the stakes. An Iraqi polity with a modern social contract would be a rebuke to all that Egypt stands for, a cruel reminder of the heartbreak of Egyptians in recent years. We must not fall for Cairo’s claims of primacy in Arab politics; these are hollow, and Iraq will further expose the rot that has settled upon the political life of Egypt.

The fact is that these worries only confirm that the removal of Saddam was the right thing to do. The old thinking of the realpolitik era was that our foreign policy should, above all, assume that stability was in our national interest. It didn’t matter if a country was ruled by a tyrant, so long as he was our tyrant. While that sort of thinking helped hedge against Soviet domination, it no longer applies in today’s world of global Islamic terrorism.

As Ralph Peters once wrote, stability is America’s enemy. The completely dysfunctional system of Arab autocratic rule that is pervasive in the Middle East can no longer be allowed to continue. When Secretary of State Rice finally called for truly democratic elections in Egypt it was an indication that the Bush Administration is finally getting the big picture. Mubarak may be an autocrat, if a benign one, but the prevailing thinking was that he was a firewall against the radicals. However, Egypt has become a hotbed of terrorism and Islamic radicalism precisely because it’s undemocratic system of government means that the polity has no real method of democratic change. While Mubarak got away with yet another rubber-stamp election with a veneer of democracy over the top, the fact that brave men like Ayman Nour are free today is a testament to the burgeoning pro-democracy movement spreading across the Middle East.

The autocracy of the Arab world feeds into radicalism by making terrorism one of the only ways of effecting any sort of political change. People have an innate need to be in connection with their government, and when people are unhappy in a democracy, they can vote the bums out. In a dictatorship, their only choice is to put the bums against the wall and shoot them – provided that the army doesn’t kill them first. That sort of political impotence feeds into the people’s rage against a life that they can barely control – and Arab governments have been very good at funneling that rage away from themselves and towards Israel and America.

However, the problems of the Arab world have nothing to do with Israel or America. The Palestinians are little more than pawns. If tomorrow a miraculous peace broke out between Israel and Palestine, the Middle East would still be utterly dysfunctional. If Israel disappeared, the Middle East would be dysfunctional. The Arab world needs to look inwards to see the problems at home that is keeping it mired in societal mediocrity. The people of Iraq have an unprecedented chance to do that, and they are embracing an ideology of democratization and individual liberty that provides the greatest existential threat to the old autocratic order that they have ever faced. They know quite well that if the Iraqi people demand democracy, it won’t be long before their people do as well. And the governments of Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are beginning to feel it already.

The situation in Iraq is so unsettled largely because it represents a titanic change in the Middle East, and the old order has every interest in maintaining the autocracy that kept them on top. However, that’s a feature, not a bug. Our desire to smash the old orders in the Middle East are based in self interest as they are in the noble support of democracy. Groups like al-Qaeda don’t feed off the truly poor and oppressed – terrorism is a sport of the middle class. Mohammad Atta was the son of a Cairo doctor who joined with fellow engineering students in Hamburg to form a cell of al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden himself was a multi-millionaire before becoming an Islamic radical. It is the middle class who most strongly feel the effects of living in a polity that gives them little control over their future.

The key to breaking that cycle is ending that autocracy. As Ajami finds, the worries of the old guards in the Arab League and elsewhere indicate that is precisely what is happening. Despite the violence of the Zarqawis and the bin Ladens, the events in Iraq will not be stopped through bloodshed. The process of democracy will continue in that nation, so long as the coalition and the Iraqi people continue to remain resolute – and thankfully that is most assuredly the case.

There is a massive change brewing in the Middle East, causing fear among many who have every interest in seeing the region autocratic and intolerant – as well as those in the West who wish to see America fail and be humbled. However, like many waves of democratization throughout history there will be setbacks and trials, but only one end.

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