Friday, February 11, 2011

Middle Eastern Democracy, or how American Invasions don't accomplish it

After eighteen days of protests, Egyptian President Mubarak has finally stepped down. Down with the king; long live the people. More positive change has occurred in the past month in the troubled Maghreb (North Africa) than any of our invasions (Iraq, Afghanistan) or covert operations (deposing Mossadegh of Iran in 1953). More likely than not, the victory of the Egyptian people over their corrupt dictator will inspire Syrians, Lebanese, Iranians, etc.

Regardless of the conspiracy theories proffered by the luminaries of Fox News, who believe that a Muslim caliphate is now on the rise that will destroy our values (said in a desperate voice on the verge of tears), these protests and this handover of power represents serious, positive transformations in Middle Eastern politics. Granted, we have no way to predict what will happen next, but there is no reason to feel as if the ousting of Mubarak will result in Osama bin Laden becoming the new president of Egypt.

Many critics have pointed to the Muslim Brotherhood as becoming the leaders of this opposition government, which would result in a war with Israel. This supposition seems unlikely for numerous reasons. First, the Brotherhood did not start these protests and did not become involved into nearly the second week of demonstrations. The majority of protesters, according to journalists like Richard Engels and Chriastiane Amanpour, were mostly secular young people of collegiate age.  Second, the billion dollars in American aid that is given to the Egyptian military is predicated on following the Camp David Accords of 1978. If the Egyptians were to decide to invade Israel, they would lose that very large chunk of change. The military, which is currently in power,  need that money, and will do anything to ensure its continued presence in their coffers.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a reactionary organization, but they are not al-Qaeda. They will have to play a part in this government, being that they held sixty-seats in parliament. As long as they renounce violence, which they seem to be doing, there is no reason to limit the legal participation of a group, simply because we, the American people, do not agree with their philosophy. The absolutely worse thing American foreign policy has done in the last fifty years, from Iran to Argentina to Vietnam, is decide that the people of a country have elected the wrong man to lead the country. Our presumptuous attitude has forced us into wars and military invasions that are costly in lives (both military and civilian) and destroying our budgets, making us unable to provide healthcare to our citizens. Presuming to know better than the electorate of a nation is a dangerous business, and one American foreign policy seems to engage in on a yearly basis.

Some commentators have noted the role of social networks, such as facebook and twitter, in these protests. making this as the true innovation of democracy in the twenty-first century. That could not be further from the truth. The Egyptian government shut down the telecommunications of the entire country, meaning no one could get on his/her facebook account or even use his/her cell phone. The demands and grievances of the people were so great, this lack of access did not matter and people took to the streets peaceably.

Of course, there were days of violence, but this violence arose not from overzealous protesters, rather from Mubarak's supporters and undercover police officers. Why would Mubarak want to strike up violence? It is a brilliant strategy that allows Mubarak to come onto national television and notify the people that new emergency powers would be taken to put down the violence and end the chaos in the country (this on top of the fact that Egypt has been under emergency powers for the last thirty years, longer than my entire life). Fortunately, Egyptians, nor the international media, bought into this skewed logic. With Mubarak supporters sounding more radical than his detractors, reporters were bruised up and sometimes beaten, sparking ire among international viewers and weakening Mubarak further in the eyes of his people. Every step he took in the last two weeks has been a serious misstep, except for his final step down.

Hopefully, the people of Iran will be able to further their demands, but in Iran the police force and the regime has a firmer grip on the affairs of the country. What ended the protests in 2009 was the fact that the majority of the country believed that the elections held that year were free and fair and the secret police were able to shut down mobilizing forces with a quick hand. However, the model of Egypt may change this. See three good books on this topic: The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern IranRoots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran; and The Mantle of the Prophet, 2nd Edition: Religion and Politics in Iran.

I have avoided the thorny topic of Israel in these musings, but it is undeniably wrapped up in these political events. I do not think that a change in Egyptian leadership will meet with the destruction of the Israeli state, as some hawkish foreign policy commentators have asserted, but it will bring renewed protests from Palestinians. I hope in all my naïveté that they are not violent. I will say this: Why haven't we learned more from the example of Ireland in dealing with the extreme violence of the Israeli/Palestinian case? The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has effectively minimized, if not eliminated, a problem that seemed so incomprehensible that Northern Ireland would always be awash in the blood of its citizens. From the "Troubles" of the 1970's and 80's to the peace of this century, a radical  metamorphosis has taken place. Can we hope the same for the Middle East? Well, this week may be the first tentative steps in that direction.  

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