There Be Dragons
Published: February 28, 2012
In medieval times, areas known to be dangerous or uncharted were often labeled on maps with the warning: “Beware, here be dragons.” That is surely how mapmakers would be labeling the whole Middle East today.
After the onset of the Arab awakenings, it was reasonable to be, at worst, agnostic and, at best, hopeful about the prospect of these countries making the difficult transition from autocracy to democracy. But recently, looking honestly at the region, one has to conclude that the prospects for stable transitions to democracy anytime soon are dimming. It is too early to give up hope, but it is not too early to start worrying.
Lord knows it is not because of the bravery of the Arab youth, and many ordinary citizens, who set off these awakenings, in search of dignity, justice and freedom. No, it is because the staying power and mendacity of the entrenched old guards and old ideas in these countries is much deeper than most people realize and the frailty or absence of democratic institutions, traditions and examples much greater.
“There is a saying that inside every fat man is a thin man dying to get out,” notes Michael Mandelbaum, the foreign policy expert at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “We also tend to believe that inside every autocracy is a democracy dying to get out, but that might not be true in the Middle East.”
It was true in Eastern Europe in 1989, added Mandelbaum, but there are two big differences between Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Many Eastern European countries had a recent liberal past to fall back on — after the artificially imposed Soviet communism was removed. And Eastern Europe also had a compelling model and magnet for free-market democracy right next door: the European Union. Most of the Arab-Muslim world has neither, so when the iron lid of autocracy comes off they fall back, not on liberalism, but Islamism, sectarianism, tribalism or military rule.
To be sure, we have to remember how long it took America to build its own liberal political order and what freaks that has made us today. Almost four years ago, we elected a black man, whose name was Barack, whose grandfather was a Muslim, to lead us out of our worst economic crisis in a century. We’re now considering replacing him with a Mormon, and it all seems totally normal. But that normality took more than 200 years and a civil war to develop.
The Arabs and Afghans are in their first decade. You see in Syria how quickly the regime turned the democracy push there into a sectarian war. Remember, the opposition in Syria began as a largely peaceful, grass-roots, pan-Syrian movement for democratic change. But it was deliberately met by President Bashar al-Assad with murder and sectarian venom. He wanted to make the conflict about his Alawite minority versus the country’s Sunni Muslim majority as a way of discrediting the opposition and holding his base.
As Peter Harling and Sarah Birke, experts on the Middle East who have been in Syria, wrote in a recent essay: “Rather than reform, the regime’s default setting has been to push society to the brink. As soon as protests started … state media showed staged footage of arms being found in a mosque in Dara’a, the southern city where protests first broke out, and warned that a sit-in in Homs … was an attempt to erect a mini-caliphate. This manipulation of Syrians meant the regime was confident that the threat of civil war would force citizens and outside players alike to agree on preserving the existing power structure as the only bulwark against collapse.”
You see the same kind of manipulation of emotions in Afghanistan. U.S. troops accidentally burned some Korans, and President Obama apologized. Afghans nevertheless went on a weeklong rampage, killing innocent Americans in response — and no Afghan leader, even our allies, dared to stand up and say: “Wait, this is wrong. Every week in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, Muslim suicide bombers kill other Muslims — holy people created in the image of God — and there’s barely a peep. Yet the accidental burning of holy books by Americans sparks outbursts and killings. What does our reaction say about us?” They need to have that conversation.
In Egypt, every day it becomes clearer that the Army has used the Tahrir uprising to get rid of its main long-term rival for succession — President Hosni Mubarak’s more reform-minded son, Gamal. Now, having gotten rid of both father and son, the Army is showing its real hand by prosecuting American, European and Egyptian democracy workers for allegedly working with “foreign agents” — the C.I.A., Israel and the Jewish lobby — to destabilize Egypt. This is a patently fraudulent charge, but one meant to undermine the democrats demanding that the Army step aside.
The Arab/Muslim awakening phase is over. Now we are deep into the counter-revolutionary phase, as the dead hands of the past try to strangle the future. I am ready to consider any ideas of how we in the West can help the forces of democracy and decency win. But, ultimately, this is their fight. They have to own it, and I just hope it doesn’t end — as it often does in the land of dragons — with extremists going all the way and the moderates just going away.