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Thirteen months after a Tunisian street-vendor immolated himself and sparked the revolutions in the Middle East dubbed the “Arab Spring,” the bipartisan celebrations that attended those events last year appear premature, if not delusional. Now that Islamist parties are consolidating their power in the wake of the regime changes in those countries, President Obama’s claim that Egyptians merely wanted “a government that is fair and just and responsive,” or Senator John McCain’s assertions that Libyans were aiming for “lasting peace, dignity, and justice,” or Senator Joseph Lieberman’s article in Foreign Affairs that summarized the Arab Spring as a struggle for “democracy, dignity, economic opportunity, and involvement in the modern world” each reflects dangerous wishful thinking rather than sober analysis.
This delusional enthusiasm of a year ago has not been chastened by subsequent events that have led to Islamist dominance across the region. That’s because the Arab Spring revolutions seemingly confirm a powerful narrative that for a decade has purported to explain the roots of jihadist terror, and the means for eliminating it. In his second inaugural speech, President Bush formalized this narrative in the Bush Doctrine, which articulated a foreign policy focused on ending the “resentment and tyranny” that left people vulnerable “to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder,” leading to terrorist violence that can “cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat.” Only the “force of human freedom” can “break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant.” When the uprisings of early 2011 removed brutal autocrats like Gaddafi, Mubarak, and Tunisia’s Zin El Abidine ben Ali, the power of democratic freedom seemingly unleashed by our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan now appeared poised to work its magic in the heartland of the Islamic world.
A year later the dictators are gone and elections have been held, but this optimism about the power of democratic voting now appears simplistic and naive. The liberal democracies some expected to develop in the Middle East appear to be no closer to reality than they did under the tyrants. In Tunisia, an Islamist party, Ennahda, took 90 out of 217 seats on the new National Constituent Assembly. Like most Islamist parties, Ennahda takes it inspiration from Egypt’s Muslim Brothers, whose credo is “God is our objective; the Quran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; and death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations.” Exploiting the naïveté of Westerners who believe in the oxymoron “moderate Islamist,” Ennahda founder Rachid Gannouchi has assured the West and Tunisian secularists that his party is moderate and does not intend to subordinate their rights and freedoms to shari’a law. Yet Ennahda counts as supporters the more radical Salafists who do want strict adherence to shari’a, and who find broad support among the poorer, more conservative rural Tunisians.
Gannouchi himself sometimes sounds like an Islamist, as when he told listeners at an election rally, “God wants you to vote for the party that will protect your faith.” Some Tunisians are already acting on this imperative to “protect” Islam. Salafists stormed a university in Sousse to protest its refusal to admit a veiled female student. A group of Muslims tried to convert a church into a mosque, and though dispersed by police, they have been invited to ask the government’s faith ministry to effect the conversion. A violent protest erupted against a television screening of the animated movie Persepolis, a negative portrayal of the Iranian revolution in which Allah is depicted as a cartoon. To chants of “Your god has been insulted, come out and defend him!” a mob attempted to burn down the house of the station’s owner. While disavowing the attack, Ennahda called the screening a “provocation” that was equally responsible for the violence. Understandably, secular and liberal Tunisians are skeptical about Ennahda’s promises of moderation, which perhaps are tactical deceptions, given the party’s more hardline base and Muslim Brothers roots. Najib Chebbi, for example, who heads the Progressive Democratic Party, has called Ennahda “a nondemocratic force” with “an ideological project they haven’t acknowledged yet.”
Next door in Libya, the continuing disorder in the wake of Gaddafi’s fall has created even more opportunities for Islamist domination. The epicenter of the rebellion, eastern Libya and the towns of Darnah and Benghazi––where the flag of al Qaeda has been seen flying over the courthouse––supplied proportionately more fighters against our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other country. These veterans of the al-Qaeda affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) have now acquired weapons looted from arms depots, including assault rifles, machine guns, mines, grenades, antitank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and thousands of SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles capable of bringing down commercial airliners. The LIFG fighters played a major role in the take-over of Tripoli and the capture of Gaddafi’s compound, and their leader, Abd Al-Hakim Belhadj, is the commander of the Tripoli garrison. These Islamist allies of al Qaeda will be a major force in whatever government, if any, eventually rules Libya.
Equally worrisome, like the other militias in Libya, the LIFG veterans have refused to disband and hand over their weapons, contrary to earlier pledges to surrender them to the National Transitional Council, Libya’s interim government. Just this month, gun battles erupted in Tripoli between militias from that city and those from Misrata, casting in doubt the possibility for a stable government anytime soon. In the east, some of the largest and best- armed of these militias with ties to Islamist groups are forming political parties. The NTC is unlikely to be a liberal counterweight to these well-armed Islamists. Its draft constitutional charter proclaims, “Islam is the religion of the state, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Shari’a).” On “liberation day” after Gaddafi’s death, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the chairman of the NTC and Libya’s interim leader, confirmed these intentions when he told the crowd to shouts of “Allahu Akbar,” “We are an Islamic country. We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion.” One of his first pledges was to end the old regime’s ban on polygamy, since “the law is contrary to Shari’a and must be stopped.”
The Islamist ascendency is even more troublesome in Egypt, the most populous Muslim country in the region and birthplace of the Muslim Brothers, who have been the biggest beneficiary of regime change. In the first two rounds of voting, Muslim Brothers and Salafist parties took 70% of the vote, marginalizing the parties of the photogenic “Facebook kids” that charmed so many Western observers. Meanwhile, the Egyptian army, trained and financed by the United States and recipient of $1.3 billion in aid, continues its hold on power, joining in the murder of Christian Copts, brutalizing and killing protestors, and recently shutting down 17 international organizations that promote democracy. The outcome of the army’s stranglehold on Egypt and the struggle over control of the country could be yet another military dictatorship and increasing violence and chaos.
A more likely outcome will be a modus vivendi struck between the military and the Islamists, one that lets the army keep its economic privileges, while the Muslim Brothers install an Islamized constitution, something a majority of Egyptians would support. In a Pew survey from last year, 84% of Egyptians support the death penalty for apostates, and 82% support stoning adulterers. In another poll from 2010, 85% of Egyptians said Islam’s influence on politics is positive, 95% said that it is good that Islam plays a large role in politics, 59% identified with Islamic fundamentalists, 54% favored gender segregation in the workplace, 82% favored stoning adulterers, 77% favored whippings and cutting off the hands of thieves and robbers, and 84% favored death for those leaving Islam. And 60% of Egyptians in a Pew poll in 2011 said that laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Koran. All these traditional Islamic beliefs and preferences are inconsistent with the foundational ideals of liberal democracy such as tolerance, separation of church and state, respect for individual rights, a flourishing civil society, and equality for all before the law.
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