Between Democracy and Islam

The seismic uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya coupled with the riots and demonstrations in Jordan and Iran have shaken the region and the world. Whilst the results of these revolutions thus far have varied, no one can doubt that the Middle East left behind will never be the same again. What do these revolutionary movements herald for this volatile part of the globe and what would democratic reform mean for these countries and the West?
In the cases of Libya and Egypt, what has happened could be characterised as a revolution since elements within either the police or the military sided with the demonstrators to a greater or lesser extent. However, in other cases such as Iran or Bahrain the demonstrations have so far been contained relatively easily by the regimes.

One characteristic of the revolutions in the Middle East has been the lack of organisation, the absence of common goals amongst the demonstrators, and an inability to look beyond the present task of getting rid of the incumbent. In this sense, even though the media have presented these demonstrations as being pro-democratic, they are essentially anti-regime. They have also been characterised as movements driven by radical Islamist ideas which could, as Gadaffi warned ominously, transform one state after another into a potentially more extreme version of Iran. Yet in the example of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – the party most likely to rise to power after Mubarak – we have not seen evidence that it is willing or able to take the reins of power. On the other hand, we cannot easily disregard the possibility that Islamist radicals might take advantage of the virtual state of civil war in Libya. Moreover, since the Libyan military is already deeply divided it is unlikely that it will be able to maintain the same degree of relative stability as its Egyptian counterpart did recently, leaving a definite opening for Islamist groups to exploit in a post-Gadaffi state.

After such powerful demonstrations against Arab regimes, it is clear that whatever forms of governance develop, due attention must be given to the public’s demands if peace and stability are to be sustained. In Egypt and Libya, as well as in most of the other states where repressed societies are confronting their respective regimes, the next governments that come to power either by force or through elections could easily be Islamist. Whether the states that emerge are moderate or radical, the parliaments which are formed will almost certainly have a strong Islamist representation.

Thus, the pluralistic template of government which the West is advocating as the answer to the region’s problems could easily have negative results for western interests if Islamic parties gain influence, even if they are democratically-inclined. The result would be a region where an element of Islamic governance and democracy coexist as seen in the case of Turkey. Such a model, containing a paradoxical mixture of economic liberalism and cultural-religious conservatism, would likely preserve a significant degree of Islamic nationalism, both in foreign and domestic policy, in order to maintain social cohesion.

If we use the Turkish model of governance to analyse the future of the regimes in transition, we can easily envisage a region where Islamism has a very prominent role. Such a model would allow the Arab-Muslim states to develop economically through trade and increased financial ties with the West. Conversely though, the common element of Islamism could also intensify feelings of solidarity among Muslim states, while not necessarily reviving the idea of Pan-Arabism.

Equally significant is the impact that such a development might have on the balance of power not only in the Middle East but also internationally. Countries such as Egypt and Libya might no longer support American operations in the Middle East as they have previously. As seen in 2003, Ankara refused to allow American troops to enter Northern Iraq though Turkish soil to prevent any negative ramifications for Turkish interests in Kurdish Iraq or Kurdistan.

Therefore, there is a huge amount at stake for the US and the West as these momentous events continue to play out. Crises like those in Egypt and Libya recently illustrate the misguided strategic planning of the US with respect to the Middle East in emphasizing the stability of local regimes over a desire to see their Arab clients promote genuine democratic values. If the revolutions in the Middle East unfold as has been suggested above, then, the emergence of a distinct Islamic pole in the center of the world map is far from implausible.

Posted on on March 5, 2011


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