Dicing with Democracy: President George W. Bush's Crusade to Transform the Middle East-And the Law of Unintended Consequences. Ed Blanche Reports from Beirut

By Blanche, Ed | The Middle East, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Dicing with Democracy: President George W. Bush's Crusade to Transform the Middle East-And the Law of Unintended Consequences. Ed Blanche Reports from Beirut


Blanche, Ed, The Middle East


ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISTS SEIZING power in an Arab state or indeed in the wider Muslim world, has long been one of Washington's nightmares. But, according to some the threat may be heightened because of President Bush's crusade to spread democracy in the Middle East.

The political transformation of the region could have unforeseen consequences by producing regimes that are not friendly to the United States and do not share its values or its zeal for a global war against terror.

Pluralism and free elections could propel Islamists to pouter from Morocco to Pakistan. Algeria's gruesome experience in trying to prevent an Islamist victory at the polls in 1992 provides a salutary lesson to those who would seek to thwart the electoral process by force.

In most authoritarian Arab countries, political opposition does not officially exist although Islamic movements--most of them moderate--rather than secular liberals or reformists constitute the natural political alternative.

The clear winners in Iraq's recent parliamentary elections, as expected, were candidates approved by the Shi'ite clergy and the landmark municipal polls in Saudi Arabia overwhelmingly elected Islamist candidates--mostly mosque preachers, teachers in Islamic schools and officials of Islamic charities. Not something the Americans seek. Mr Bush praised this positive step towards reform in the kingdom, in large part the product of US pressure, while apparently ignoring that only half the seats were open for contest and that only one-quarter of the eligible (men only) voters participated.

In Syria, under pressure from George Bush over Lebanon, Islamists are waiting in the wings should Bashar Assad's regime show signs of weakness. They are the most organised opposition force in the country, although it is unlikely they could take power on their own.

Things are a little different in Egypt, the largest Arab country, but the threat is still there. President Hosni Mubarak is set to win his fifth six-year term in September, despite his surprise announcement on 16 February proposing amendments to election laws to allow multi-party competition for the presidency in what has been essentially a yes-or-no referendum for a single candidate approved by the parliament, which is dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party. The details remain vague, yet as commentator Youssef Ibrahim, put it, "the Sphinx had blinked".

Still, if 76-year-old Mubarak runs he is unlikely to face any serious competition. The main challenger, the Muslim Brotherhood, arguably Egypt's strongest organised political force, is banned from political activity while Islamic extremists like Gamma Al Islamiya (Islamic Group) were systematically crushed during a 1992-1997 insurgency. The leadership of the Brotherhood, the pioneer of political Islam, is regularly thrown into prison. But everyone, including President Bush, knows that in any truly open election the Brotherhood and its Islamic allies would fare well.

Mubarak, and other Arab leaders like him, has been under mounting US pressure to introduce political reforms since 9/11.

But the US administration is caught between the need to balance the short-term objective of supporting critical, and authoritarian, allies--such as Mubarak and President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan--with the long-term objective of geopolitical continuity. Musharraf is increasingly being forced by the US to get tough with Pakistan's Islamic militants, many allied to Al Qaeda, risking a possible backlash that could endanger his regime.

John Lehman, a member of the US commission that investigated the 2001 disaster and a former navy secretary under Ronald Reagan, recently noted that the threat of Islamists seizing power in the Gulf and Pakistan "could fundamentally change the balance of security in the world and have an enormous impact on our economy ... in the case of the Gulf, it could well lead to a total cut-off of oil . …

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