Authoritarianism returns to the Middle East

I spent the last week in Turkey, specifically in Antalya and Ankara.  In Antalya, I was presenting at the Eurasian Dialogue annual Forum — a meeting of scholars and officials  mainly from former Soviet states, Turkey, and a few other invited countries (Germany, USA, China).  Offiicial languages were Turkish, Russian, and English, so the Chinese, German, and other guests had to make their presentations in English (I felt for the simultaneous translators who had to take the somewhat stilted English of our Chinese speaker and translate that into good Turkish or Russian).

The theme was the new global economic order, and there were presentations on the need for human values to guide development, for sustainability, and frankly, for not letting the same dominant global financial and business firms who were steering the huge increase in income inequality and the financial crashes in Europe and the U.S. shape the entire global economy in the future.  Panels focused on improving the unequal distribution of wealth, strengthening the economies of poor countries, measures against child labor and
avoiding unfair competition to promote the free market system and switching to a global currency.

It was truly fascinating to see the way that former Soviet officials are searching for a new model for economic growth. Having first discarded the soviet central-planning model in the 1990s to embrace capitalist markets, they are now horrified at the soaring inequality, political backbiting and paralysis, and unending high unemployment in the US.  They are even more appalled by the long-drawn out collapse of the mediterranean economies in Europe, with ghastly unemployment levels, year after year economic recession and stagnation, and falling-out between the UK and the continent.  So what is an ambitious, reforming, post-Soviet state to do?

There was great excitement about the Arab Spring and the spread of democracy in North Africa, but that joy is turning to bitterness in light of events in Egypt and Syria.  Europe and the US had resisted involvement in Syria for three main reasons:  (1) supporting the rebels would lead to a larger civil war; (2) arming the rebels would pose a threat to Israel and other nations in the regions; (3) and Jihadists would benefit from the flow of weapons and disorder.  In order to prevent these outcomes, Europe and the US have sat on the sidelines wagging their fingers while Russia and Iran have provided weapons and tactical advice and support to the Assad regime.  What has been the result?  (1) The civil war has spread to engulf the entire country and shatter the major cities; (2) the rebles have acquired heavy weapons, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, from capturing Syrian army outposts and supplies; and (3) Jihadists have moved into the power-vacuum and even taken the lead in fighting in the absence of any other external support for the Syrian rebels.  So inaction has produced every outcome that was supposed to be avoided.  As I was departing, Turkey was preparing to accept installation of Patriot anti-missile batteries from NATO to prevent Syrian attacks in the event that a failing Assad regime desperately tried to enlarge the combat by lashing out.  Things could hardly be any worse, and inaction by Europe and the US has been blamed for prolonging and deepening the conflict and allowing Assad to kill tens of thousands of Syrians.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, widespread optimism that Egypt’s pivotal role in creating a cease-fire in Gaza might lead to expanded Egypt/Palestinian/Israeli peace negotations were cruelly dashed.  First, Hamas argued that it had won a great victory by sending rockets as far north as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem but then gaining Egyptian support to force Israel to not invade Gaza and instead accept a cease-fire.  Fatah then sought to regain ascendancy in Palestine by spearheading a successful effort to gain recognition as a non-member state by the U.N.  This action in turn led Israel to take the punitive measure of expanding settlements to fully encircle East Jerusalem and cut it off from the rest of Palestine, thus ensuring that no Palestinian state could ever exist with East Jeruslam as its capital.   Any prospects of movement toward a two-state solution have thus been dashed, and a solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict is more distant than ever.

Within Egypt, President Morsi surprised both his opponents and supporters by pre-empting any conflicts with the pro-secular Egyptian high court by declaring that all of his actions, and those of the constitution-drafting assembly, were exempt from any law or judgement of the high court until they completed their work on the constitution and a document was passed by referendum.  In other words, fresh off his victories in seeing off the leaders of the former military council and his role in Gaza, Morsi went for it all by grabbing supreme power himself.

Of course, this power grab has aroused wide-spread opposition by all those who had thought their efforts to remove Mubarak and the military from power would lead to democracy.  Cairo has seen huge and increasingly violent demonstrations.   While Morsi claims that he had no choice, and that if he had not acted the high court would have dissolved the constitutional assembly and left Egypt without a government, his arguments have only persuaded his supporters among the Muslim Brotherhood that the secularists and military were trying to steal back control of the country.

Indeed, one of the paradoxes of the Egyptian revolution is that the Muslim Brotherhood is  genuinely popular, and that the secularists and the military represent a minority view.  But in challenging the Brotherhood, the secularists claim to be fighting for democracy.  In their view, democracy means human rights, women’s rights, religious pluralism, and equality for secular and Islamist leaders. However, for the majority of the Islamic people, democracy means rule by the leaders they favor, who are predominantly the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, many of whom are committed to building a society guided by Islamic law.

Morsi attempted to cut through this dilemma by grabbing power and rushing the constitutional assembly to present a document for a referendum.   But the document — produced by an assembly boycotted by many secularists — has a distinctly Islamic slant, and secularists and liberal democrats feel that Morsi’s power grab is being used to foist upon them a blatantly Islamist constitution.

Where is this heading?   Rumors are that Morsi is preparing to declare martial law to suppress the demonstrations and disorders sweeping Egypt.  That would be a supreme irony and tragedy — that one of the most hated aspects of the Mubarak regime, it’s emergency law, would be emulated by the Morsi regime that overthrew it.  That is the paradox of revolutions; new regimes often become a reverse image of the ones they overthrew.




About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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1 Response to Authoritarianism returns to the Middle East

  1. William Ray says:

    Revolution and counter-revolution. In the United States since World War II, it manifested as ten years of long-delayed equality demand, followed by fifty years of conservative retrenchment, with the fear of social disorder assiduously cultivated by those same ‘conservative’-voiced authoritarian interests.

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