A Post-War Arab World-Three Views: Democracy-Be Careful What You Wish For

By Ibrahim, Youssef M. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2003 | Go to article overview

A Post-War Arab World-Three Views: Democracy-Be Careful What You Wish For


Ibrahim, Youssef M., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


The rumble of armor across southern Iraq and the thunder of bombs in Baghdad ended the debate over whether to go to war. But it opened new fronts in the debate over the use of American power.

Few doubt that the war will bring historic changes in the region as well as in America's relationships with other nations. A member of the Defense Policy Board has said that U.S.-led invasion of Iraq would "reshuffle the deck" in the Middle East and promote U.S. interests, democracy and liberal values. But the invasion could also be akin to taking the deck, throwing the cards in the air and hoping they land facing up. So far, the results remain up in the air.

Even if the invasion is a military success, it could still mean new dangers for American diplomacy, political tensions in the Arab world, dilemmas for the antiwar movement and challenges inside Iraq itself, which President Bush said would be ruled by an "Iraqi Interim Authority" imposed by the United States.

There were two striking results in an opinion survey conducted earlier this month by Zogby International in six Arab countries-Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon.

One was that a huge majority of people in those countries said that, if given the choice, they would like their Islamic clergy to play roles bigger than the subservient ones currently prescribed by most Arab governments.

Equally impressive, less than 6 percent of those polled believed that the United States was waging its campaign in Iraq to create a more democratic Arab or Muslim world. Close to 95 percent were convinced that the United States was after control of Arab oil and the subjugation of the Palestinians to Israel's will. The survey, commissioned by University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, also showed that overwhelming margins said that terrorism was going to increase, rather than decrease, as a result of the U.S.-led invasion.

President Bush has said that the invasion of Iraq, and the establishment of a new government there, would be a "catalyst" for change in the region. But what kind of change? Rather than leading to liberal, pro-Western democracy, as Bush suggests, the war in Iraq is likely to bring only more radical Islamic fundamentalism. After all, the Islamic fundamentalist parties, grouped under the big tent of the Muslim Brotherhood, are the only forces with the organization, capability and ambition to take power if democracy were to become an option in the Arab world.

Arab leaders are plainly worried by this prospect. A few weeks ago in Cairo, during a fact-finding trip for the Council on Foreign Relations, I had a three-hour private conversation with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about the politics of the region, the coming war in Iraq and U.S. policy. Though closely allied with the United States, Egypt has been pressed by the Bush administration to undertake democratic reforms.

Mubarak recounted an episode to illustrate the degree to which radical Islam has infiltrated Egypt, the most populous Arab country. When Mustafa Mashhour, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, died in the middle of the night last November, Mubarak ordered his domestic intelligence and security services to go on high alert and block tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood followers from flocking to Cairo from all over the country to take part in the funeral. As in Judaism, Islamic burials have to be carried out a day after death. The adherents had no more than a few hours and word of mouth to get word of the funeral out through their vast secret network.

Yet the Muslim Brotherhood is, to use a Saddam Hussain euphemism, the mother of all Islamic militant organizations. Founded in Egypt in the 1930s, it has helped give birth to every Muslim radical movement, from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda to Palestinians' Hamas and Islamic Jihad to Lebanon's Hezbollah. Its tight structure helped spread the word of the funeral quickly. …

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