Friday, January 21, 2011

Beyond the Secular-Islamist Divide in Middle East Politics

Despite the Western media's obsession of viewing Middle East politics through the lens of radical Islam, events taking place in Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon have little to do with religion.

In Tunisia, radical Islamist groups were delighted with Zine al-Abidine Bin Ali's overthrow and hoped to exploit the unrest to establish an "Islamic Amirate of Tunisia." To the chagrin of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghrib (North Africa), Tunisians have shown no interest in such bombast and instead have emphasized the secular nature of their protest movement.

In Lebanon, Hizballah has dramatically increased its power, but only through cross-confessional cooperation. Hizballah has proposed a billionaire Sunni prime minister, Najib Miqati. A graduate of the American University in Beirut with a Masters of Business Administration degree, he is hardly a radical Islamist. To put him in office, Hizballah has required the support in parliament of Michel Aoun's Maronite and Walid Jumblatt's Druz factions .

In Egypt, the Mubarak regime is trying to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the unrest that is sweeping the country. The Brotherhood denies any involvement and demonstrators who have been interviewed by the press say their protests have nothing to do with Islam. As one young activist put it, "If we were the Brotherhood, we'd be much better organized."

What are the drivers of the current unrest in the Middle East?
There are many factors behind the current unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon, unrest that may spread to other countries as well. First, there is large unemployment and underemployment in these countries, as in many others in the region. This unemployment disproportionately affects youth, who make up a large demographic in most countries of the Middle East, often well over 60% of the population under the age of 25. Second, there is the problem of massive corruption and nepotism within the state apparatus, made all the more intolerable by the increasingly sharp divide between the rich and poor. Third, protesters are no longer willing tolerate political systems that continue to be dominated by a small group of entrenched elites who refuse to share power with anyone else. All this combines to undermine any sense of hope in the future.

With the dramatic increase in social media in the Middle East, this discontent is widely shared on the Internet among large segments of the populaces of the region. Social media help offset feelings of inefficacy because they demonstrate that the same same feelings of discontent transcend national borders. Social media also provide a way to organize opposition to authoritarian regimes, as we saw in Iran in June 2009 after the election of president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, which many think was rigged. Social media facilitate the organization of demonstrations and are difficult for the state to control.

Is the Jasmine Revolution transportable?
But is the Tunisian model of regime change applicable to other countries of the Middle East? One of the most important elements in the Jasmine Revolution has been the support for the demonstrators by the military and, more recently, the national police. The Tunisian army is a relatively small force and largely apolitical. The refusal of its commander-in-chief, Gen. Rachid Ammar, to obey the orders of deposed president Bin Ali to fire on demonstrators, was seen as key to forcing Bin Ali and his family to flee the country.

In Egypt, the military is much more politicized, having seized power in the July 1952 Revolution. Military officers subsequently became directors of nationalized companies, that came to form Egypt's large public sector, where many made large fortunes for themselves and their families. Other former officers added to their wealth and power through occupying key positions in the state bureaucracy and intelligence services. The Egyptian army, by which I mean the upper echelons of the officer corps, will most likely fight vigorously to prevent the ouster of the Mubarak regime (although it may seek to replace him with another autocrat in an effort to placate the current demonstrators).

One key variable in assessing the possibilities of democratic change in the Middle East is the degree to which corruption has pervaded the upper echelons of society. The greater the degree to which there is an institutionalized system of corruption, the larger the number of political actors and groups who will oppose democratic political change, realizing that such change will curtail their power and wealth.

Lebanon presents a very different situation from both Tunisia and Egypt. Ethnically and confessionally divided, it has always had a weak state, and is subject to pervasive and negative "neighborhood effects" - namely interference in its political affairs by Syria, Israel, Iran and many other states in the region. Many of the drivers of discontent in Tunisia and Egypt are operative in Lebanon - unemployment, corruption and nepotism, lack of government services and a small political elite that monopolizes power and is unresponsive to the need for political and economic change.

When analysts ask how Hizballah was able to transform itself from a shadowy organization that was connected to the bombing of the US marines barracks in Beirut in 1983 to a movement today that, in effect, controls Lebanese politics, they only need look to the country's political elite which has always ignored the needs of the poor Shi'a of south Beirut and southern Lebanon. This segment of the population has grown dramatically over the past two decades, and was forced for almost 20 years to confront Israel's occupation of the south. Had the Lebanese government taken the south's problems seriously during the 1950s and 1960s, well prior to the Israeli invasion of 1982, it is doubtful that Hizballah would have acquired the power that it has today.

Hizballah, and its backers, Syria and Iran, will attempt to prevent the type of change that is occurring in Tunisia from happening in Lebanon. With the country's different ethnic and confessional groups divided along many ideological lines, it is unlikely that the type of national unity that we are seeing in Tunisia will crystallize in Lebanon.

Still, Lebanon has a largely democratic political culture, and Hizballah will be forced to take responsibility for the country's problems, now that it, for all intents and purposes, rules the country. If it pursues a sectarian agenda which leads to more conflict, it may alienate many of its own supporters who, like most Lebanese, yearn for political stability following the devastating civil war of 1975-1990 and continued political instability. If, as is expected, the unsealing of the indictments by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon of those alleged to have assassinated former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005 show that they were members of Hizballah, the organization could lose considerable credibility in Lebanon.

What is the role of the international community in the Jasmine Revolution?
Even if it is doubtful that either Egypt or Lebanon will move towards greater democracy in the near future, what can the international community do to help the Jasmine Revolution consolidate its gains? If Tunisia establishes a functioning democracy after its forthcoming elections, elections that the military vows it will make sure are fair and transparent, a danger lurks if the new government is unable to address the economic problems that were the reason for the uprising against the former Bin Ali regime. Educated professionals, workers and others may be delighted to have freedom or expression and assembly, the right of political participation and other benefits of democracy, but these will soon lose their attractiveness if there is no improvement in the economy.

Already the UN has sent a team of advisers to Tunisia to provide assistance to the new interim government. The UN should be the focal point for a large international effort to provide economic assistance to Tunisia. The UN, the US, the European Union, Turkey and other countries should encourage foreign investment in the Tunisian economy. International lending agencies should provide micro-credit for small merchants, such as the vegetable and fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation set the Jasmine Revolution in motion. International agencies, both governmental and non-governmental, should help the new Tunisian government provide better services to its citizenry, such as health care and job training.

Tunisian universities should receive assistance that would allow them to upgrade their curricula, thereby providing better educational opportunities for the large youth demographic in the country. Universities in north America, Europe, Turkey and elsewhere could establish "sister university" relationships where foreign universities partner with their Tunisian counterparts to improve the educational system, both secondary and higher. All these efforts would provide the critical social and economic underpinnings for the Tunisian economy. They also would send a strong message to the populaces of other authoritarian states in the Middle East that democratic change is possible in the region, the assertion that it suffers from a "democracy deficit" notwithstanding.

Religious devotion should be respected by everyone. But forcing one's religion on someone else is antithetical to the spirit of tolerance and brotherhood/sisterhood that characterizes all of the world's major religions, including Islam. Muslims throughout the Middle East have discovered that Islamism - by which we mean requiring the wearing of a certain type of dress and following certain codes of behavior - cannot, on its own, bring about the improvements in the quality of life sought by the peoples of the Middle East.

Jobs, better education, accessible health care, and increased opportunities for women require much more than the outward trappings of religious belief. Above all, this type of progress requires a civic, participatory and democratic citizenry that works together, across religious lines, and that includes both men and women and old and young, to bring about the positive change we see occurring in Tunisia. Religious fanaticism has no role to play in this type of political movement.

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