Feb 17th 2011
THE people of the Middle East have long despaired about the possibility of change. They have felt doomed: doomed to live under strongmen who have hoarded their wealth and beaten down dissent; doomed to have as an alternative only the Islamists who have imposed their harsh beliefs—and beaten down dissent. In some places, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, the autocrats and the Islamists have merged into one. But nowhere has a people had a wholly free choice in how they are ruled. And the West has surrendered to this despair too, assuming that only the strongmen could hold back the extremists.
Two months ago a Tunisian fruit-seller called Muhammad Bouazizi set fire to these preconceptions when, in despair over bullying officials and the lack of work, he drenched himself in petrol and struck a match. Tunisians and, later, Egyptians took to the streets. Almost miraculously, the people overwhelmed the strongmen who had oppressed them for decades. In the past few days tens of thousands have marched in Tehran, braving beatings and arrest. In tiny Bahrain men have died as the security forces sprayed protesters with rubber bullets and smothered them in tear gas. In Libya crowds have risen up against a fearsome dictator. Jordan is sullen, Algeria unstable and Yemen seething.
Radical Islamists have long been the Arab world’s presumed revolutionaries, but these fights do not belong to them. In a region that had rotted under repression, a young generation has suddenly found its voice. Pushing ahead of their elders, they have become intoxicated with the possibility of change. As with Europe’s triumphant overthrow of communism in 1989, or even its failed revolutions of 1848, upheaval on such a scale can transform societies. What does that mean for the Islamists, the strongmen and the world?
The answers begin in Egypt. Pessimists see people-power burning itself out even now. As Cairo’s streets empty of protesters, the hope of genuine democracy will die, they warn, and the old inevitability will reassert itself. Once again Egypt will be left to choose between military autocracy and a stealthy electoral coup by the Islamist Muslim Brothers.
Either outcome is possible. Egypt is young, angry and poor. The country’s press has only recently asserted its independence. It has somnolent universities, little history of individual dissent and no recent parliamentary tradition. Society is suffused by contempt for the West and hatred of Israel. It lacks the foundations for democracy. The Muslim Brothers are organised and patient, while the state can call on perhaps 2m police and security agents trained in violence. It will have to be the Brothers or another strongman.
Yet day after day Egypt’s largely secular young protesters have peacefully defied the pessimists. Although the Muslim Brothers played their part, they came late to the show. Despite their violent past, there is a world of difference between the Brothers and al-Qaeda. Of course they want power—what political group does not? But the fear that their agents are everywhere and that they are poised to seize the throne suited Hosni Mubarak, the ousted president, as much as it did the Brothers themselves. Their threat justified his repression.
The time has come to end the grim symbiosis between the oppressor and the oppressed. Hatred of the Muslim Brothers does not justify the apparatus of state violence that catches all Egypt in its vice. The Brothers only drew strength from the darkened cell and the torturer’s knife. When the Muslim Brotherhood won 20% of seats six years ago, it was the only party that presented a real alternative to Mr Mubarak. In an open contest today they might do better, but not necessarily.
Throw open the blinds
Even if they gained seats, the Brothers should be encouraged to take a full part in Egypt’s political life, including in elections. Democracy cannot thrive if they are silenced. The only condition—and it is one that applies to all parties in all democracies—should be that the Brothers accept the principles behind Egypt’s new constitution.
That constitution is now being redrafted under the stern gaze of the army, firmly in control once again. Indeed, right now the authoritarians look more likely to strangle Egypt’s democracy than the Islamists do. Under six decades of quasi-military rule, its senior officers enjoyed perks and wealth that democracy now threatens to withhold.
Just how far the military men accommodate the protesters depends partly upon circumstance. Who runs the military council: the defence minister, Muhammad Tantawi, once a Mubarak man, always conservative and now ailing; or the chief of staff, Sami Enan, younger and closer to the Americans? Can the generals resist the temptation to smash workers striking for pay, to delay the repeal of Egypt’s decades-old “emergency” law or to deflect criticism by demonising Israel?
So far, they insist that they will return Egypt to civilian rule, according to a quick timetable and with real democratic reforms. That makes sense, because the protesters’ mark on Egypt cannot just be washed away like so much debris in Tahrir Square. Faced by the people, Egypt’s soldiers would not shoot—instead, they saw off the police. Forced to choose, the army preferred its revered place in Egyptian society to the survival of the man at the top. Because of that precedent, the generals cannot now count on troops to use violence. Moreover, after six decades under military strongmen, generals and protesters alike know that oppression and poverty lead down a dead end. Even a self-interested army stands to gain more from a society that is more productive.
Nobody can foresee how the forces unleashed in Tunisia will play out across the region, because each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way. Libya and Syria are more repressive than Egypt. Yemen is complicated by the prospect of secession in the south; Iran by the failed uprising in 2009. Jordan’s monarch rules a country that is mainly Palestinian; Saudi Arabia and the emirates have the soothing balm of oil. Even in Iraq, which has a democratic constitution and elections aplenty, the ruling party has fought against relinquishing power.
So muddle and confusion may reign. But the outside world can play its part. Barack Obama eventually made the right choice in Egypt by backing the protesters (see Lexington). He should press rulers to bolster their regimes by reform rather than violence. America and its allies can help reformers, so long as they avoid the label that reform is made in America. Egypt needs money, infrastructure and advice on how to reform institutions, such as the courts, the press and schools and universities. The Gulf states should help stabilise Egypt with money and soothing words. The links between the American army and officers in Egypt can also help steer reform. And the West can press harder for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians—nothing to do with these upheavals, but a source of poison in the Arab world nonetheless (see article).
The prize could be a family of new democracies: not Poland or the Czech Republic, but Turkey, perhaps, or Indonesia. Such powers do not always fall in with the West’s designs. They will, for instance, be harsher on Israel than America would like. But they are better for their people and their promise of stability is worth more than a dictator’s bloody cheque.
Since the millennium, democracy has struggled to dispel the fear that it cannot withstand Islamism or the economic potency of an authoritarian China (see Banyan). Egypt promises to undermine both those propositions. Authoritarianism is not the best answer to Islamism. And it rarely creates prosperity. As the Arab world awakens, a better future beckons.