Autocrats 'R Us

The New Arab Era: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sadrists and Hezbollah—united 

 In Lebanon, Hezbollah has been transformed from a fringe militia seizing Western hostages into the country’s predominant political force, capable of displacing a pro-Western cabinet with a coalition of its own making. Moqtada al-Sadr has gone from being a “wanted man” to the kingmaker of Iraqi politics. Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine ben Ali, long a model of the liberalizing autocrat who introduced economic reforms, promoted a moderate strain of Islam and appeared open to co-existence with Israel, was overthrown. With Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the formerly banned En-Nahda movement, having returned to his homeland from exile, and likely to contest elections, the prospects of yet another Islamist movement entering government—sharing Hezbollah’s and the Sadrists’ opposition to the U.S. peace process and its “war on terror”—must be taken as a likely prospect. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, America’s closest partner in the Arab world for the last three decades, could be on his last legs, and the Muslim Brotherhood—the most organized political opposition in the country—is likely to play a greater role in shaping policy. In both Yemen and Jordan—two U.S. allies who have supported America’s war on terror—governments are facing protests. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, is frantically trying to craft new policies designed to appease his country’s underemployed youth, while Jordan’s King Abdullah dismissed his prime minister, Samir Rifai and asked Marouf Al Bakhit to form a new government, while the Islamic Action Front—the Jordanian version of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, called for a “directly elected” government responsible to a freely-elected parliament, not one appointed by the monarch.

“Pressure from below” throughout the Arab world, however, is likely to fundamentally change the policies adopted by Middle Eastern governments, regardless as to whether existing regimes can successfully find an accommodation with restive populations or are overthrown. And while the specter of radical Islamism is real, it is also important to note that opposition to the U.S. program for the Middle East cuts across various ideological boundaries to unite Arabs across the spectrum, from secularists to Islamists. Back in 2003, Ray Takeyh and I, examining the question of how a more democratic Middle East might conduct its relations with the United States, observed: “[T]he foremost priority of democratizing regional states would be the plight of the Palestinians, an issue that has long scarred the region’s consciousness. Progressive liberals such as the Wafd party in Egypt have usually put forth the loudest denunciations of America’s ‘‘double standards’’ vis-a`-vis Israel and the Palestinians. In a similar vein, such states … would see no rationale for continuing to accommodate America’s military installations, peace compacts, and effortless mandating of regime changes wherever Washington perceives an unsavory leader who is not conforming to its norms. In essence, Arab democracies would seek what they perceived to be equitable and fair relations with the United States, but object to the cumbersome American imperial demands, especially regarding Israel. This is not a clash of civilizations, but a nationalistic defiance of a global power’s priorities.”

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