America & the Arab Spring: A New Way Forward

The toppling of the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak and new dawn in Egypt strikes fear of uncertain change in the region in the hearts of many rulers. It has inspired protests in Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, and Yemen; the creation of a political party in Saudi Arabia; and concerns in Iran's Islamic Republic, which was so shaken by the Green Movement in its last presidential elections.

 

The end of the Mubarak regime demonstrates the falsity of commonly held stereotypes: Arabs reject democracy, Islam is incompatible with popular sovereignty, the grip of rulers of security states is unshakeable. Pro-democracy protesters were driven by longstanding political and economic grievances: the lack of democracy, a growing gap between a rich minority and the middle class and poor, rampant corruption, rising food prices, high unemployment levels, lack of opportunity, and a sense of a future for young people. Egyptians reclaimed their dignity and control of their lives, demanding an end to widespread corruption as well as government accountability and transparency, rule of law, human rights, and the right to determine the government and destiny of Egypt.

 

The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have revealed a broad-based, pro-democracy movement that is not driven by a single ideology or by religious extremists. What has occurred is not an attempt at an Islamist takeover, but a broad-based call. As their signs, placards, statements, and demands demonstrate, protesters want Egyptian unity, speak of one Egypt, and sing the Egyptian national anthem; they wave Egyptian flags, not Islamist placards. People from every walk of life, professionals and laborers, were united in a common cause.

 

Surprising? Not really. The Gallup World Poll of more than 35 Muslim majority countries, representing the voices of a billion Muslims, had reported that in Egypt and in most Muslim countries, majorities surveyed wanted greater democratization, freedoms, and the rule of law. That said, regrettably, the U.S. and many European countries continued long-standing policies to support authoritarian regimes, security states. Despite America's claim to promote democracy and human rights as the Bush administration acknowledged, America (under all recent presidents) has had a legacy of "democratic exceptionalism," what many have seen as a "double standard," supposed American promotion of democracy globally, but support for authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world. This policy, while attractive to authoritarian allies and their entrenched elites, fed anti-Americanism and fears of Western intervention, invasion, occupation, and dependency.

 

The Way Forward

 

We live in a changing multi-polar world that requires, as President Obama has acknowledged consistently from early in his administration, mutual respect and cooperation. The challenge for American and European policymakers will be to move beyond equating protection of national interests with the stability and security of regimes, beyond fear of the unknown, of a process whose outcome it cannot control, to a policy based on American principles of self-determination, democracy, and human rights.

 

If in the past, the question had been: "Is Arab culture or Islam compatible with democracy?" Today the question and concern is: Are the old guard and entrenched elites (military, security, political elites) as well as Islamists ready for the transition to Arab democracies?" 

 

A new framework based on working with democratically elected governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries in the region does risk a less predictable future, working with more independent governments with their own vision of their national interests. As we do with many other countries, allies and non-allies, around the world, our relations will be based on national interests and common strategic political, economic, and military interests. In contrast to the past, the U.S. should place primary emphasis on investment in educational, economic, and technological rather than military assistance, working particularly with independent NGOs. Our efforts should be self-consciously multi-lateral, bringing an end, as President Obama has emphasized, to American unilateralism.

 

We need to acknowledge that there is a new narrative in the Middle East. Critical as the Egyptian and Tunisian people move forward will be that same sense of national unity in building a democratic, pluralistic, multi-party political system that represents the diversity of Egyptian society. This will also be important to assure that the future is not hijacked by the military or entrenched elite holdovers from the previous dictatorships.

 

Egypt's military rulers have in fact moved to assert and extend their power so broadly that a growing number of lawyers and activists are questioning their willingness to ultimately submit to civilian authority. Indicators that have raised fears that the revolution is being hijacked by the military include: reintroduction of an extended emergency law by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in the name of safeguarding law and order; since the revolution some 12,000 people have been arrested and are to be tried by the military courts; a leaked copy of the Justice Ministry's fact-finding committee report lists 39 NGOs, including some of Egypt's most reputable human rights organizations, that are to be subjected to "treason" investigations by Egypt's state security prosecutor.

 

An even stronger indicator of the transition military government's delay tactics against rapid transition is its announced schedule: The parliamentary elections (starting on 28 November and lasting until January 2012), which will then be followed by work on the constitution, have led to concerns that the presidential elections could be pushed off as late as 2013. Gen. Mahmoud Hegazy stated: "We will keep the power until we have a president."

 

But what about the danger of an Islamist takeover?

 

It's time to look at the empirical evidence. Since the late 20th century, far from being advocates of religious extremism, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda (Rennaisance or Awakening) Party have opted for ballots, not bullets. Among the Brotherhood's most vigorous critics (and enemies) have been Egyptian militants, including al Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiry. For decades the Muslim Brotherhood, though officially illegal, has proven to be the largest and most effective non-violent opposition movement, politically and socially, within mainstream Egyptian society. The Brotherhood has competed and done well in elections, despite constant government harassment, including imprisonment and detention without charge or conviction. And it has remained nonviolent. On the other hand, the Mubarak government had a decades-long track record of repression, rigged elections, and used violence by government goons to intimidate and harass all secular and Islamist opposition.

 

On Sunday, Oct 23, Tunisia held its first free and democratic elections. Amidst reports of a 70 percent voter turnout of young and old, women and men, moderate Islamists and secularists, the election symbolized a restoration of their dignity and freedom and the hope for a better future. At the same time, many in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world and the West watched the first fruits of the Arab Springunfold. Early reports indicate that among the 80-plus political parties and independents, Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) Party, has won as much as 50% of the vote and 40 percent of the seats.

 

Ennahda’s emergence as a major political player has been enhanced by its history as the primary opposition movement and victim of the Ben Ali regime’s police state, by its strong organization, national appeal and platform, as well as the absence of strong alternative political parties. The legacy of Ben Ali’s Tunisia as that of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt is a history and culture of authoritarianism which precluded the development of a strong multi-party system. The RCD like its Egyptian counterpart the NDP flourished in what was an essentially a one party state. 

 

Many Egytians and Tunisians express concerns about the role the international community may play behind the scene. At a workshop co-sponsored by Georgetown’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in Istanbul in early October, "The Arab Awakening: Transitioning from Dictatorship to Democracy," Egyptian and Tunisian activists and political leaders asked: Do the U.S. and EU really accept the revolutions of the Arab Spring? How will they respond to the emergence of strong Islamist political parties like Ennahda or a Muslim Brotherhood? Will they attempt to influence or place conditions on the form of democracy or the position of Islamists? Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent comment that the [transition military government] plan for elections is “an appropriate timetable" reinforces such concerns.

 

The U.S. has every reason to pick up the gauntlet that the new transfer of power in Egypt and Tunisia and the continued process of political transformation in the Middle East presents. Barack Obama went to Cairo early in his presidency and affirmed his "unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere." When it comes to dealing with pro-democracy forces, let's walk the way we have talked.

 

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John Esposito

University Professor as well as Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, John L. Esposito is Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. Esposito has served as consultant to the U.S. Department of State and other agencies, European and Asian governments and corporations, universities, and the media worldwide. A former President of the Middle East Studies Association of North America and of the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, Vice Chair of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100 Leaders, he is currently Vice President (2011) and President Elect (2012) of the American Academy of Religion and a member of the E. C. European Network of Experts on De-Radicalisation and the board of C-1 World Dialogue and an ambassador for the UN Alliance of Civilizations.

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