A little-noticed event gives a grim insight into what is really happening in the Middle East. The euphoria of the "Arab Spring," the instant Twitter-style transition from dictatorship to democracy, is seen for what it is: an illusion. Yes, the dictatorship of one kind has gone, but democracy in the sense we understand it is, shall we say, somewhat delayed.
There have been any number of disappointments. The event that should give us pause about the underlying forces was obscured by the Christmas holiday. In mid-December, violent Islamic Salafist extremists burned down Cairo's famous scientific Institute d'Egypte, established by Napoleon in the late 18th century during a French invasion. The institute housed some 200,000 original and rare books, maps, archaeological objects, and rare nature studies from Egypt and the Middle East, the result of generations of work by researchers, mostly Western scholars. Zein Abdel-Hady, who runs Egypt's main library, remarked, "This is equal to the burning of Galileo's books."
The Salafists, who hate all things Western, no doubt saw their vandalism as an act of defiance against the West, destroying the precious documents of historical Egypt that were so intimately connected to the West. They are either too ignorant and/or too careless to realize that they were destroying their own heritage from Pharaonic Egypt.
Last year in the Middle East was the most dramatic it has known for many. The series of uprisings in Egypt were marked by the emergence of Islamic forces from years of suppression. They scored dramatic political gains in Tunisia and Libya, too. Leaders who perceived themselves as invincible fell, one after the other, the most dramatic being the end of the rule of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
The United States could not decide whether to support a regime that was disagreeable, but yet a strategic ally, or abandon it because it ignored fundamental American values like freedom and democracy (which means not just fair elections and majority rule, but respect for the rule of law, equal rights for women, tolerance of minorities, and freedom of expression). Alas, with the collapse of the Mubarak regime, the cause of freedom in Egypt is set back since, in the battle between the army and the conservative Islamic extreme, the Islamic bloc won by an overwhelming majority, with first place taken by the Muslim Brotherhood and second place grabbed by the Salafi extremists. By the time the elections are finished, there is likely to be at least a two thirds majority for an Islamist constitution. What we are witnessing is a democratic election of a dictatorship.
The White House completely miscalculated in Egypt, as it did in Gaza. It seemed only to care for the mechanics of the electoral process rather than the meaning of the results. Washington vacillated on who its Egyptian allies really are. We had long shared with the Egyptian military understandings on national security, ours with an eye to maintaining peace in the region. That relationship is now pretty much lost.
Americans, in their perennial innocence, have demanded that the generals turn over power to the civilians whomever they may be, just as they did to the Persian shah, just as they did after Israel's pullout from Gaza when they hadn't a clue about the danger posed by Hamas. Our ingenuous attitude has been tantamount to handing over Egypt on a silver platter to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, who ironically are coming into power as democrats.
Their new foreign policy will include opening the blockaded border with Gaza, ending normal relations with Israel, and opening them with Hamas and Iran in such a way as to alter the balance of power in the region against U.S. interests. Indeed, one of the few things that unites the political parties in Egypt is an anti-Western foreign policy. Cairo has already allowed Iran's warships to transit the Suez Canal; failed to protect pipelines supplying energy to Israel and Jordan; endorsed the union of Hamas and Fatah; and hosted conferences in support of "the resistance," that is, terrorism.
The United States forgot the lessons of Iraq, namely, that it is easier to remove an Arab-state dictator by military means than it is to alter the internal balance of power and create a solid foundation for human rights. Had it kept the Iraq experience in mind, the Obama administration would have thought a lot harder and ensured that there was a foundation for genuine democracy in Egypt before demanding Mubarak's immediate resignation.
The Islamic groups can credit their success to better resources and organization, but they also have deep ties with Egypt's religiously rooted public. Their work with social and economic welfare programs during the country's long history of economic hardship gave them wide popularity among the illiterate poor. But as Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has put it, "The Brotherhood is not, as some suggest, simply an Egyptian version of the March of Dimes—that is, a social welfare organization whose goals are fundamentally humanitarian." It is a "profoundly political organization," he added, that seeks to reorder Egyptian society along Islamist lines and "transform Egypt into a very different place." As the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood put it in a sermon, "Arab and Muslim regimes are betraying their people by failing to confront the Muslims' real enemies, not only Israel but also the United States." The sermon was titled: "The U.S. is now experiencing the beginning of its end."
In six months a new president of Egypt will be elected. This is important because the presidency has long been the supreme locus of power. After the presidential election, which is supposed to occur before June, authority will pass to the newly elected leadership, and at that stage, the army is supposed to exit. The army's leaders seemingly intend to continue to play a central role, but this may lead to a clash between the army and the Islamic bloc.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is doing everything in its power to avoid transferring full control to civilian hands in order to retain the dominant status of the army, whatever may emerge. But army leaders are now seen as trying to steal the achievements of the revolution—and for the worst reasons, namely, their corrupt control of economic assets and the perks they have accumulated over the decades.
This does not bode well for America and its policy of deposing dictators and replacing them with "democratic regimes." As collateral damage, Saudi Arabia, once America's closest ally in the Middle East, no longer sees the United States as reliable, and the Saudi king's willingness to listen to the Obama administration has evaporated.
The new regime in Egypt will face challenges. For one, it will have to stabilize the economy. For that, experts say, it will need tourism; maritime traffic through the Suez Canal; gas sales to neighbors; and Western investment, not to mention American economic and military aid. These probably are the main barriers to a renewed confrontation with Israel, for this vital aid would then be stopped.
Democracy in Egypt without the Muslim Brotherhood may be impossible, but so is democracy under its leadership. It is one thing for the Muslim Brotherhood to run in an election; it's another to imagine what they will do if they gain power, for the Islamists will replace secular dictatorship with Islamic dictatorship, leaving only the army to prevent the establishment of an Islamic state. The young men and women of Tahrir Square toppled the regime. Then along came a second wave, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose founder, Hassan al-Banna, once declared, "It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated." Now we will see how the Egyptian military faces its dilemma. If it holds fire, it will seal its fate, and the Islamic forces will take over by default. If army leaders decide to open fire, they will be classified as murderous dictators.
Of course, images of Mubarak on a hospital gurney in a metal cage in a Cairo courthouse, with the Robespierran prosecutor now demanding the death sentence, could provoke the SCAF to reconsider its eagerness to return to the barracks and hand power to the new Islamic leadership.
The West faces a dilemma: If it confronts the Islamists, it will confirm the Brotherhood's claim that the West is conspiring to undermine the religious identity of the Muslim world. If it does not, it will ignore the forces within Arab society that yearn for genuine democracy and Western forms of government. At the very least, the United States should withhold economic or diplomatic support to Arab states that follow the path of political Islam. Cairo will now be painted in Islamic colors, but this is not a clash between the secular and the religious. It is a clash between freedom and tyranny.