Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fall of President Mubarak: Is Middle East moving towards democracy?

Published in Daily Sun, February 13th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Great events are unfolding in the Middle East showing early potentials of changing the conflict prone region to better times. It is also a time that calls for vision of all who could nurture these potentials and ensure that they bring positive results. Mr. Mubarak’s resignation on Friday last and his fellow dictator Mr. Ben Ali’s unceremonious exit earlier in the face of people’s power, are truly historical events. The resignation of Mr. Mubarak who was not expected to go so soon is a prelude to the buildup of a tsunami like wave in the region that is very likely to end by helping people win their political rights against dictators in pseudo-democratic regimes and autocratic regimes.

At such a historical juncture, there are other events at play in the region’s politics and society that could help the democratic wave. There is a belief in the West that both Middle East and Islam are not fertile grounds for democratic ideas and ideals to take root. In fact many in the West argue that Islam and democracy are not compatible. In the context of the region, they argue that in the type of society in the Middle East, historically, power is destined to be yielded by few. In other words, those who argue in these lines feel that any investment in bringing democracy in the Middle East is bad investment.

Thus over the years, the United States and other nations in the West, while paying lip service to democracy, have courted, supported and sustained dictators in the countries in the region that did not have monarchy. The United States and western countries also supported the hereditary rulers of the region to the tilt. In fact, one of the biggest US base in the region is in Qatar.

A lot has been written about the US-led invasion of Iraq. President Bush has been criticised severely both in his country and in rest of the world for this intervention. The President has been blamed after his administration was caught with its pants down on the reason to attack Iraq in the first place which was to destroy weapons of mass destruction. When the US occupation forces failed to find any WMD, the Bush administration changed stance and claimed that it attacked Iraq to force Mr. Saddam Hussein out and establish democracy in the country.

Suicide attacks, fighting among the various ethnic and religious groups and against the US forces led many to dismiss the claim of the Bush administration that it went to Iraq for the sake of democracy. In fact, the conflicts inside Iraq after the fall of Mr. Saddam Hussein encouraged the critics of President Bush’s decision to attack Iraq to state that Iraq would not see democracy because a Muslim Middle East country cannot be democratic.

However, after the US has pumped close to a trillion US $, sacrificed lives of over 4,000 of its servicemen and women and two parliamentary elections, Iraq today shows early signs that a democratic political system is in the process of being established in the country. The fighting ethnic and religious groups have realised that they can achieve better results for their groups through the elections than they can by bullets and suicide bombs.

In Iran, the three decade old conflict between the clergy and liberal democratic forces came to a head during and after the last Presidential elections, 2009. The conflict has now entered a new phase where many among the clergy are supporting democratic change. This clearly perceptible change in Iran where conservative Islam is slowly accepting western democratic ideas is sadly being missed out because of the west’s abiding interest above everything else against allowing Iran to build what it thinks the nuclear bomb. Iran is predominantly Shiite while the rest of the Middle East and North African Muslim countries are predominantly Sunnis. The Shiias are organised in the religious sense much better at all levels of the society and the country. There is no such organisation among the Sunnis; in fact the Sunnis have no such order for comparison with the Shiia religious order.

The difference notwithstanding, both among the Sunnis and Shiias, western liberal and democratic have clearly been established, a point that can also be perceived among Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. In the midst of the current upheaval there, the lingering fear in the western media is a takeover of Egypt by the MB and the dangerous fall out of such a takeover in the region. In this MB phobia, the western media is failing to recognise that the democratic ideas and ideals that have touched both the Sunni and Shiia masses in the region have also influenced the MB itself to change. In 2007, the MB that has been banned as a political party but has been present in the society in a number of other ways, has made public a document that suggests basic changes in their way of thinking about politics, society and the region. Even on Israel, a MB spokesman has said that MB would respect Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel if “Israel showed real progress on improving the lot of the Palestinians.”

The MB is now focused on the opportunity before it not in an Egypt that they wanted to establish through violence and extremism but an Egypt in which they could share power by democratic elections. The successful movement in the street against President Mubarak has opened this possibility. It is this possibility upon which the US should focus and see that elections are held in Egypt in the quickest possible time and power is allowed to be exercised by the winning party or the coalition even if the MB is a winner. A democratic government in Egypt and Tunisia could guide the fair wind of democracy blowing in the region towards establishment of sustainable democracy in the other countries of the region. Even countries under hereditary rule would find it difficult to resist the wave towards people’s rights.

Egypt today holds world attention. Egyptians have shown the depth of people’s power by remaining calm against provocation and in the end winning victory by non-violence that would have made Mahatma Gandhi proud. The military has done the right thing by withdrawing support from President Mubarak to force his resignation. It now has a bigger role to transfer power to a truly elected government. The US that has great influence over the Egyptian military must work with it to ensure free and fair elections.

The US must also send strong message to the other dictators and hereditary monarchs in the region that it would no longer support the likes of President Mubarak anymore. At the same time, the US must redouble its efforts for a just solution of the Palestinian problem to complete the process of change towards democracy as a result of defining events in Egypt and Tunisia. The solution of the Palestine problem justly and fairly would remove the need for the US to support and sustain dictators and autocratic rulers in the region anymore.

Writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt and Japan and a former Secretary to the Government.

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