Two crises—Syria and Egypt—bedevil the Arab world and threaten to rewrite America’s role in the region. President Obama must act boldly and quickly, or the consequences will be felt by both Arabs and Americans for decades to come.
President Obama has punted the warmaking decision to Congress, which did not return from recess until recently. Russia and America are on opposing sides in Syria, with Moscow viewing Damascus as a valuable strategic asset. It is also intent on protecting the many Russian citizens who live in Syria. From America’s perspective, Syria is listed as a U.S. State Department-designated State Sponsor of Terrorism. It has long given aid and succor to terrorists, meddling in Lebanon and supporting Hamas.
Syria’s other major ally is Iran, perhaps the largest sponsor of terrorism worldwide today. Iran has sent its own thugs to fight alongside the Syrians. Meanwhile, Iran’s intelligence agencies sponsor terrorist uprisings in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Yemen. It clearly aims to make the Arab world its satrapy, just as it has made Syria its satellite.
If Assad survives to rule Syria, Iran will increase its effort to topple Washington’s Arab allies. And America’s friends will have little reason to feel safe while America’s foes have little reason to fear. Moderate Arabs and Americans will lose influence as desperate nations rush to strike some accommodation to Iran.
The importance of Egypt’s civil war is almost impossible to overstate. It is the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood.
During their brief rule, the Brotherhood failed to respect social and political pluralism. And this is not an error of governance. It is their philosophy. Political Islam’s doctrine ridicules the idea that law should be decided by elections. “Would you also vote on what is good and what is evil?”, they ask. As soon as the Brotherhood came to power, it issued more and more restrictions on reporters, musicians, filmmakers, and others. It wanted free expression to be suppressed in favor of what it called “clean art” that would teach moral lessons in keeping with its strict interpretation of Islam.
Egypt’s Islamists do not acknowledge that winning an election does not confer the power to change the constitution or that electoral winners are only temporary custodians of the government in a democracy. Instead, they use elections the way 1960s African liberation movements did: One man, one vote, one time.
The Brotherhood is an antidemocracy force that happened to win a snap election before other parties could effectively organize.
The Brotherhood’s appeal, which is real enough, rests on three legs: the seeming lack of corruption among the Brotherhood (it hasn’t held power long enough to become known for demanding bribes), the purity of the Brotherhood’s creed appeals to idealistic young city dwellers (a large voting bloc), and the Brotherhood’s focus on fighting poverty.
The opposition to the Brotherhood is an ungainly coalition that is already starting to splinter and crack. The Egyptian army and secular urban elite are culturally different and do not trust each other. Dissent, especially after the recent killings by the army made headlines, is growing. The resignation of Mohammed ElBaradei from the transitional government is more evidence that the coalition is falling apart. These are the stakes of the Egyptian civil war—one side seeks a religious totalitarianism and the other a secular, liberal alternative. Whatever is decided in Egypt may be the verdict for the rest of the Arab states.
The Obama administration seems blind to America’s own strategic interest in the stability of Egypt and peace along Israel's borders. Yet America’s allies in the region are not. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia openly support the Egyptian army because their own internal security is at risk. Indeed, Saudi Arabia publicly said it would make up the difference if America or its European allies cut off foreign aid.
While the Brotherhood’s foes are among America’s strongest allies in the region, its friends are more revealing. The Brotherhood’s most significant non-Arab ally is Iran.
Everywhere the Islamists struggle for power, they do it with violence. Iraq and Lebanon are already in a sectarian war. Jihadists are also fighting moderate governments in Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria, where their chief casus belli was that they were not handed total power.
In Morocco, an Islamist terrorist cell made up of schoolteachers was recently dismantled; it was planning attacks on American and French interests in Morocco. It described its ideology as an offshoot of the Brotherhood.
What’s needed is an international summit that convenes all of the Arab nations along with America and its European allies. The summit should focus on building democratic institutions. America’s government-funded Arabic radio and TV networks should teach the elements of patiently establishing a free society.
Here Egypt, and the rest of the Arab world, could learn from Morocco. A meaningful multiparty system has been in place in the country for a generation, and diverse political movements—ranging in orientation from Islamism to socialism—have achieved a measure of credibility. The democratic space has been gradually expanded since Mohammed VI's accession to the throne, a trend further advanced two years ago by a new constitution. There is a relatively level playing field among parties in the political arena, and Islamists are necessarily disposed to look for liberals to help them find a place in any government. Radical Islamists exist, but their chances of obtaining real power are negligible. Morocco's carefully fostered political diversity, together with the steady growth of civil society institutions, tempers and moderates the Islamist stream. The king, for his part, maintained his role as the country’s highest religious authority.
Morocco has secured free-trade agreements with the U.S. and the E.U. on previous governments, but progress has stalled under the Islamists. Privatization and deregulation—the trend over the past decade in Morocco—has also slowed. Meanwhile, the king reminded the government, too many young families can’t find work or food. Economic growth has a vital spiritual role; it offers hope. The elected Islamists of Morocco need to stop fixating on ideological priorities and focus on practical human needs.
Ahmed Charai is the publisher of L’Observateur du Maroc and other newspapers and the owner of Morocco’s largest private radio network Med radio. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the Board of Directors of The Atlantic Council of United States and the Board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is also member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.
Image: Flickr/Quentin Dreze. CC BY 2.0.