Tending a tinderbox

International | With rulers in retreat, the next Near East conflict is between Islamists and secular reformers

Issue: "The rise of localism," March 12, 2011

Long-term authoritarian with minimum two decades in power, poor record on human rights, friend or foe of U.S. irrelevant, helpful to have military background and some overseas training. These appear the essential qualifications for ouster in the Muslim world, as unrest that has spread from north Africa to the Gulf states now threatens to topple not one, not two, but perhaps a generation of heads of state in the Near East.

With the street charged from Algeria to Yemen, it's becoming clear that these are no cookie-cutter revolutions. Egypt's 18-day street confrontation leading to the end of the Mubarak regime bears little resemblance to the civil war unfolding in Libya.

But interlocking interests could quickly ignite a wider conflict. Libya under Muammar Qaddafi has financially propped regimes in Sudan and sub-Saharan Africa. Iran is supporting a proxy war in Senegal, not to mention shipping arms to Syria. Sitting autocrats, no matter how vulnerable, have resources: On the day Hosni Mubarak stepped aside, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa gave 1,000 dinars ($2,650) to every family in the country, hoping to forestall protest.

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This is far from over, said Walid Phares, author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East. He expects pressure for government turnover to accelerate on both pro-Western governments-like Jordan, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates-and anti-U.S. regimes like Syria, Iran, and Sudan. Saudi Arabia, he said, is no longer immune either.

In each place Phares sees a triangular equation, with authoritarians on top, civil society below, and Islamists operating at the edges. "This equation can't last long," said Phares in an email interview (see below for more from that interview). "The authoritarians are on the retreat and the two forces will try to replace them. There will be a race between the seculars and the Islamists after the authoritarians are out."

Phares, a scholar born in Beirut whose book foretelling the unraveling of the region was published in December, told me he was on a book tour as Tunisia's government toppled. "The Cedar and Green revolutions [Lebanon in 2005 and Iran in 2009] and the online debates were showing us the future. But I haven't expected the speed-that Tunisia, Egypt, and possibly Libya's elites would collapse in few weeks."

What's the worst that can happen? According to Phares, it would be a combination of victories on the part of Salafist Islamists-Sunni-led groups like the Wahabbis of Saudi Arabia (and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood) who favor turning back the clock to a medieval imposition of Islamic law and could gain power in Yemen, Algeria, and elsewhere-and Iran defeating its reformists. Should that happen, said Phares, "You will have Islamist regimes from Algeria to Arabia and an Iranian expansion over Iraq into Syria and Lebanon. The region's resources will be in the hands of the most extreme forces working against democracy and the West."

The best-case scenario will require identifying and empowering the region's secular, moderate democracy leaders. And that, Phares said, will take a strategic shift neither Washington nor Brussels (home to the EU) have yet to make-connecting with endangered minorities, bellwethers for democracy, like Christians throughout the region and ethnic groups in Algeria, Sudan, Yemen, and elsewhere. When a Polish priest named Marek Rybinski was found dead in a Tunisian garage on Feb. 18, a victim of "fascist terrorists" according to a government statement, 15,000 pro-democracy, pro-secular demonstrators turned out in Tunis the next day to protest his murder. "Jews, Christians, Muslims: all Tunisians," they chanted, both the crime and the protesters forming a panorama of the internal battles to come.

Said Phares: "Religious and ethnic minorities can only enjoy freedoms if the governments in the region are managed by democracy supporters. As long as the Islamists-Jihadists haven't reformed and Muslim-Democrats aren't empowered, the chances for suppression will be greater."

Web Extra interview with Walid Phares

By Mindy Belz

Walid Phares is a U.S.-based scholar born in Lebanon to a Christian family. He serves as an advisor to the Anti-Terrorism Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives and has served on the advisory board of the Department of Homeland Security's Task Force on Future Terrorism. Phares has taught at the National Defense University since 2006, and in 2010 he authored The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East (Threshold Editions). It accurately describes the turmoil simmering in the Middle East and North Africa that is now spilling into street revolutions and government upheaval. Below is an edited transcript of our recent interview:
In The Coming Revolution you speak of a "failure of education" in America leading up to 9/11. Why do you suppose, with emphasis since that time on democratic reform in the Middle East, that we are again caught by surprise by the changes in that region?

Under the Bush Administration, the narrative of the president and senior officials, including at State and National Security Council was in the right direction. They encouraged what they coined as the spread of democracy and endorsed civil society demonstrations and expressions. I saw that firsthand in Prague in 2006 when President Bush addressed hundreds of dissidents who came from the region to celebrate freedom in the former Warsaw Pact republic. I saw hundreds of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and dissidents in the region getting ready to start a long-term struggle for democracy in their own countries or online. We all saw the multi-party debates in Kabul and Baghdad as a result of the fall of the Taliban and the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. And of course I witnessed the rise of the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and the 1.5 million march in Beirut in 2005.

All of that triggered the anger of the ruling elites and the jihadists in the region who fueled the anti-democracy campaign for half a decade. The problem was that while the seniors of the Bush administration liked the idea, their bureaucracy was working against it. Across the agencies and diplomatic circles there was no real push for a democratic revolution in the region. Just the opposite. The talk was about engaging the ayatollahs, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. By not educating Americans regarding the struggle by civil societies in the region, academics and bureaucrats did a disservice to the public. Neither the U.S. government nor the public was ready for what was to come. I published my book in an effort to educate the public about it. But developments happened even faster than a debate I wanted to trigger. Now the coming revolution is actually here.
You also describe in your book a struggle between the forces pushing backward, the Islamists and the forces pushing for democracy and modernization. Yet it seems in Egypt and elsewhere that the Islamists now are co-opting the democracy advocates. . . . Can the two work together, or is there more struggle ahead? Is there anywhere in the region where the forces for democracy are strong enough to succeed?

The region's Islamists including the Muslim Brotherhood (Salafists) and the pro-Iranian Islamists (Khomeinists), those who play the long-term card, are applying strategic taqiyya (deception), which means that at this stage they push for the collapse for pro-Western authoritarian regimes with the help of democracy forces and seculars. But once the authoritarians are down, the Islamists would penetrate the government and bureaucracy, as well as security forces. Gradually they will modify foreign policy and education to match their ideological agenda. It is only when they obtain enough power that they will seize institutions and reverse the process of democracy. Totalitarians have often used the democratic process to seize power before they establish their solid grip over the government and unveil their regimes: Bolsheviks in Russia, national socialists in Europe, and Khomeinists in Iran. The Islamists of the 21st century will proceed in the same direction. They will act in coalitions with liberals, democrats, and moderates to achieve the first goal, that is to crumble the authoritarian regimes, then seize the moment to establish their own totalitarian regimes. The West is confused when they see Islamists acting in political parties and campaigning in elections. It is because of a lack of education regarding the ideological agenda of these parties. When I am asked by lawmakers in the U.S. or in Europe, how do we know if the Islamists (or jihadists) have opted for democracy, the answer is not in the transitional coalitions they establish but in the ideological reforms that they can engage in. If these reforms are not enacted, the Islamists movements would use democracy to subvert it at the expense of Muslim democrats and civil societies.
You predicted this upheaval, yet did you imagine that in the space of less than three months we'd see two, possibly three long-standing autocrats (with Qaddafi) ousted, and monarchies in the Gulf and Jordan threatened? Where do you see this ending?

I have been working on researching and monitoring the rise of civil societies in the Greater Middle East for the past three decades. I argued that time was ripe for these forces to rise. The Cedar and Green revolutions and the online debates were showing us the future. But I haven't expected that speed, i.e., that Tunisia, Egypt, and possibly Libya's elites would collapse in a few weeks. In other words, I projected that regimes will be hit by uprisings within a year or so but not that early in the game. My book was published in December, I was on a book tour still in January and the Jasmine revolt hit Tunisia. When that happened I read the signs coming from Egypt and the region and then I projected that demonstrations will hit everywhere-but still the collapse of Mubarak was faster than any projection.

I do believe that the demonstrations will continue to hit several countries in the region, both pro-Western governments such as Jordan, Kuwait, the Emirates, and Yemen; and anti-U.S. governments such as Syria, Iran, and Sudan. Saudi Arabia will be targeted by Iranian incitement in its eastern provinces and southern borders across from Yemen. The patterns will follow a triangular equation: on the top the authoritarians, below civil society, and on the edges, the Islamists. This equation can't last long: The authoritarians are on the retreat and the two forces will try to replace them: There will be a race between the seculars and the Islamists after the authoritarians are out. So we're talking about a long-term process. Two benchmarks can be of regional significance. If Iran's regime is seriously challenged by the Green revolution, this could lead to a severe defeat of the radicals in the region. But if Saudi Arabia's government is challenged by its own radicals, the Islamists-jihadists, this could lead to the rise of a Taliban state in the region.
Do you envision a worst-case scenario, and what is it?

The worst-case scenario would be a combination of victories to the Salafist Islamists across the region and Iran's regime defeating the Green Movement. You will have Islamist regimes from Algeria to Arabia and an Iranian expansion over Iraq into Syria and Lebanon. The region's resources will be in the hands of the most extreme forces working against democracy and the West. Hence, it is a must for the West to support the democratic movements struggling against the jihadists. The authoritarians are in decline. The West must act fast and catch up with past failures. Though I don't know if Washington and Brussels are fully aware of the challenges ahead.
What's your best-case scenario? Do you see openings for greater religious freedom, for instance, or for Christians to have a voice in governing in Egypt and elsewhere?

The best-case scenario would begin by a strategic change of direction in Washington, then in Brussels, followed by a combined transatlantic strategy to engage with the democratic, secular, and moderate elements in the region. The latter's leadership needs to be identified, supported and empowered internationally. In addition and in parallel, the West must connect with the most endangered minorities-such as Christians in the Middle East, including Egypt and Iraq, and ethnic groups like the Kabyles in Algeria and the Darfur and Beja populations of Sudan-and help them organize their communities. Only if the U.S. and the West would move forward to link up with democracy forces in Muslim majority countries in the region, and with minorities in a coordinated and integrated effort, can religious freedoms be protected and consolidated.

These freedoms could be threatened further if the Islamists-jihadists seize power. Religious and ethnic minorities can only enjoy freedoms if the governments in the region are managed by democracy supporters. As long as the Islamists-jihadists haven't reformed and Muslim-democrats aren't empowered, the chances for suppression will be greater.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as senior editor of WORLD Magazine and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.


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