Thursday, August 22, 2013

Tyrants and Islamists leave Arabs few other choices

Historically, Egypt has been the place where Arab ideals first take root, and the first where those ideals are shown to be illusions.

When Egyptians rose up against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, many Arabs saw a defining moment in their recent history. When Mr Mubarak was ousted and Mohammed Morsi was later elected president, the narrative seemed to be writing itself: the Arabs were moving toward greater freedom, with Egypt in the vanguard.

Mr Morsi's incompetent rule soon lowered expectations. His decision last November to declare that he was above judicial oversight, like his ramming through of a contentious draft constitution that was opposed by key segments of Egyptian society, showed the president's utter ignorance of what democratic politics are about.

Mr Morsi regarded compromise as tantamount to defeat, not realising that defeat is a recurring feature in democracies, where presidents are not pharaohs.

However, those who opposed Mr Morsi failed to understand that democracy is also about representative institutions and their preservation. In pushing for his downfall, in collaboration with the army, they not only undermined the legitimacy of a democratically elected president; they also handed power to a military that had long been the backbone of authoritarian rule in Egypt.

Today the army appears to have no clear idea of how to extract Egypt from its worsening predicament. The escalating violence, meanwhile, has made any prospect of a consensual, democratic solution more remote than ever. Repression of the Muslim Brotherhood has opened a Pandora's box that will not soon be closed, even as the situation in the Sinai has dramatically deteriorated in recent weeks.

The collapse of the democratic ideal in Egypt has much symbolism for the region. If Egypt can't succeed, then what of Syria, Libya or Iraq?

If this pessimistic view is correct, it would not be the region's first ride down the path of broken political dreams. In the past 60 years disappointment has been common in the region.

Starting in the 1950s, Arab societies were captivated by Arab nationalism, best embodied by the then Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. For these nationalists, the ultimate aspiration was to create a single Arab state, reflecting the unity of the Arab peoples. When Egypt and Syria joined together to form the United Arab Republic in 1958, hopes were high that this represented the core around which other states would rally.

Instead, in 1961 the Syrians broke away from the UAR, displeased with the political order Nasser had put in place in Syria. He appointed a henchman, Abdel Hamid Sarraj, to run what became an unpopular police state. In truth, Nasser's own regime had already developed a definite autocratic streak of its own, as the army took advantage of King Farouk's removal in the revolution of 1952 to impose an increasingly authoritarian system.

This trend was replicated everywhere: Arab nationalist regimes, or variants thereof, in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Algeria, hijacked their populations' drives for independence from colonial rule, or from the traditionalist leaders who had taken over from the colonial powers, to replace them with despotic leaderships.

Two things facilitated this outcome: the nature of Arab nationalism itself, and the importance of the conflict with Israel. Arab nationalism, as the personification of a grand Arab ambition, left little room for dissent or separate identities. That is why those who did not share the enthusiasm - often members of religious or ethnic minorities - were marginalised.

The conflict with Israel was equally pernicious, because it served to justify the over-militarisation of Arab societies and the vast expansion of intelligence agencies. That these were usually employed for domestic control, not to combat Israel, was irrelevant. "No voice should rise above the voice of battle," was the mantra used by regimes in many Arab countries, and opposing this view invited retaliation.

But while the ideal of Arab nationalism dissolved into the most brutal kind of tyranny, a second Arab ideal, one more limited in scope, has fared little better: that of states or administrations governed by Islamists.

Under Mr Morsi, this failure was most flagrant, but he was hardly alone. In Sudan, Algeria, and Hamas-controlled Gaza, and more recently Tunisia, some variant of Islamist rule, or its possibility, has been attempted, usually provoking a strong backlash from the military or from societies fearful that Islamism would bring intolerance.

This tension between religion and secular military institutions has been familiar throughout the Arab world. Dictators have grasped that the greatest potential threat to their rule comes from political-religious parties that are well-organised, have popular appeal, and thrive in a domain - religion - that regimes cannot easily silence without losing legitimacy.

Between the tyrants and the religious true believers, Arab societies have desperately few choices to guarantee a better future. When the first don't suppress them, the second dictate the lifestyle they must adopt. For a brief moment Egypt appeared to offer an alternative.

Had Egyptians seen that Mr Morsi could have been contained if they had reaffirmed the sanctity of the institutions to which he was subordinate, they might have acted differently. Their choice leaves the Egyptians, and many Arabs, at a loss for ideals, fresh victims of a damaged region.

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