Commentary Magazine, by Elliott Abrams (Washington, DC, Oct. 22, 2012) — Some months after the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, I sat at lunch with the aging Hosni Mubarak. He was then 76 years old and hard of hearing but soon to “run” for the presidency for a fifth time in 2005. The four times previous, there had been no election at all: Parliament chose him and the people expressed their approval (or in theory, their disapproval) in a referendum. In 2005, under American pressure for reform and a political opening, Mubarak changed the rules and allowed something that looked better to take place. Parliament played no role; he ran as the candidate of his National Democratic Party (NDP); and he allowed two people to run against him. A contested election!
To be sure, Mubarak won—with 88.6 percent of the vote. Of course, we will never know the actual percentages, nor the actual turnout. Later that year, in parliamentary elections, a bit of competition was also permitted. A few small parties won seats and the Muslim Brotherhood was permitted by the regime to capture 88 seats of the 454, while Mubarak’s NDP claimed “only” 311.
And that was it. Three months later, the man who had been Mubarak’s main opponent in the presidential election, Ayman Nour, was sentenced to five years in prison for his effrontery. In the next round of parliamentary elections, more than five years later, Mubarak made it clear he believed the tentative steps toward reform in 2005 had been a mistake. In 2010, the NDP claimed 420 seats and the Brotherhood was pushed down to 53. Understanding full well that the regime was turning back the clock, Egyptians did not go to the polls; turnout was estimated at around 10 percent. Thus ended a brief moment of reform in the Arab Republic of Egypt.
As history has shown, Mubarak’s mistake was not the small steps toward reform in 2005; it was reversing them and then baldly stealing the 2010 election. Within two months, he was gone, and when he fell, I thought back to that lunch with him and the comments he made then about Iraq. The Iraq conflict was already quite bloody, with the quick overthrow of Saddam soon followed by civil war. Mubarak scoffed at the elections we in the Bush administration were planning for January 30, 2005. The Iraqis were incapable of democracy, he argued; you don’t understand them like I do; they need a general to rule them.
Mubarak’s formula for Iraq was his formula for Egypt. He believed, sincerely I think, that Arab societies would fracture into chaos and violence unless they were ruled. And when he looked at the Arab world in the decades after he became Egypt’s ruler (upon Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981), he saw a flat landscape: Every single country was ruled—by a general (except Muammar Qaddafi, a mere colonel), or a monarch, or a strongman such as Tunisia’s Ben Ali.
Today Mubarak sees a different landscape from his prison cell. Free elections have chosen new governments in Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. When it comes, the fall of the Assad regime in Syria will mean elections there, too. The fake republics of the Arab world are going or gone, except for Algeria—where the army rules behind the façade of a “civilian” president. The Algerian military elites are known as le pouvoir, the power, in a system that Mubarak would have viewed as perfectly appropriate. There are elections, but everyone understands they are not sérieux.
The “Arab Spring” of 2011 was a region-wide effort whose purpose was to make plain that such arrangements are not perfectly appropriate for Arabs, and to demand real elections and real democracy instead. The striking fact about Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Qaddafi is that they gave no ground at all to this argument, which seemed to them dangerous and preposterous. Theirs had been “the time of the despots—charisma quit the world of the Arabs,” Fouad Ajami wrote. “They banished politics.” And thus they were overthrown, as Assad will be.
The usual defense of these men, especially now that the results of the Arab Spring have proven so worrisome, is that they were right at bottom, and the attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the murder of the American ambassador to Libya prove it. We will see chaos and violence and Islamist extremist regimes follow them for many years. Had the rulers permitted genuine reform, they would have let the same genie out of the bottle—and everywhere it seems the genie is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are two claims here: that slow reform was impossible, and that opening the political system up inevitably leads to Islamist rule. Both are wrong.
The fundamental problem for the big men in those fake republics was the paucity of their legitimacy. They lacked any religious, monarchical, or democratic claim to rule. And their poor records of economic modernization provided no basis for the claim of “performance legitimacy” that has been asserted for those in power at various times in Chile, Singapore, or China. The rulers of the Arab republics survived solely by force. Every critical journalist or human-rights advocate or blogger or minor dissident politician became an enemy of the state.
Contrast their fates with that of the Arab world’s eight monarchs, not one of whom has been swept away by the spreading revolts. Those eight countries differ in many ways but are alike in the essentials. The monarchy, derived from tribal leadership, often predates the state and its colonial borders. The al-Saud founded the first Saudi kingdom in 1744; the al-Sabah have ruled what is now Kuwait since 1718; the Alaoui dynasty has ruled Morocco since 1631, using the title “sultan” rather than “king” until 1957; the sultan of Oman is the 14th in his line, a band which began to rule parts of Oman even before the arrival of Islam. The historical connection to the precolonial past has granted the monarchs far more legitimacy than any claimed by self-appointed strongmen. What is more, the monarchy is often sustained by religious belief. The royal families of Jordan and Morocco are descendants of the Prophet. The king of Morocco is also called “Commander of the Faithful,” and it is no accident that in Saudi Arabia the favored title for the ruler is not “king” but “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.”
While sometimes the royal family monopolizes the affairs of state (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates), in several cases commoners hold all public offices from prime minister on down and monarchic rule is combined with electoral politics (Jordan, Morocco). Rarely is a monarchy so personalized a form of rule as that of Mubarak, Ben Ali, or Qaddafi. This means that the system is more supple. It allows for the give and take of nondemocratic politics (electoral, tribal, familial, regional), with shock absorbers built in and a certain amount of dissent permitted. Those civilian cabinet ministers are excellent targets for public criticism, and are dispensable. And finally, in the monarchies, succession is rarely a crisis: Son follows father or younger brother follows older, through a system legitimized by time. It is striking, by contrast, how much the struggle over whether Mubarak’s son Gamal would succeed him or which of Qaddafi’s sons would follow him contributed to unhappiness with the regime and to its ultimate instability and downfall.
The monarchies face enormous challenges as well, or at least those not favored by heaven with the combination of tiny populations and enormous oil and gas wealth (as is the case with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar). To get the balance right between royal prerogative and the rising expectations of subjects for a political role is not easy, as England’s Charles I found out in 1649 and as France’s Louis XVI did in 1793. After all, there was once a shah in Iran and there were kings in Iraq, Libya, and Egypt—all of whom lost their thrones to revolution. Still, the surviving monarchs appear to have more tools at their disposal today than the dictators had, to resist reform slyly or to guide it slowly and carefully.
The despots had and have a much more complex task: How does a wholly illegitimate ruler who holds power through force and fear begin a program of reform even if he is convinced he must? This proved to be a completely hypothetical question in the Arab case, since none of the men who have been overthrown ever saw reform as anything but a threat. Real elections, real political parties, real freedom to criticize the regime were dangerous foreign ideas at variance with Mubarak’s “insight” that Arabs must be ruled. But it would have been possible had he been persuaded, as some of the men around him were, that reform was necessary. Saying “I stand for order, but things are opening up and will get better” could have been persuasive. I well remember a leading Egyptian liberal saying to me in 2003 that she did not favor free elections right then in Egypt; she favored them in a decade’s time if she and others had those 10 years to organize freely. Mubarak could have permitted that. He did not, after all, crush the Muslim Brotherhood; in crafting those election results in 2005 and 2010, he permitted the Brothers to sit in parliament. The parties and people he crushed were the liberals, the Ayman Nours, while the Brotherhood thrived in the mosques.
Suppose Mubarak had, even as late as January 2011, announced that he would be 83 years old at the time of the forthcoming presidential elections and would not run. And suppose he had then added that the speculation about his sons’ succeeding him was wrong: They would not run either and were withdrawing from politics. This would have allowed his party to choose a younger and more attractive candidate—someone like Ahmed Shafik, the retired Air Force commander who had served successfully as the minister of aviation and was a Mubarak protégé and confidant. When, under the worst possible circumstances, Shafik did run as the candidate of the old regime in the May 2012 elections, he won 48.27 percent of the vote. Under my hypothetical scenario, Shafik would surely have won a free election. That could have produced a smooth transition away from Mubarak, a precedent for free elections, and a government that was far more legitimate and that could undertake a slow and steady political opening. At the very last minute, such arguments were made to Mubarak, it is said, but it was too late.
Ben Ali, Assad, and Qaddafi also saw no need for reform, even if occasionally they saw the need to fool Westerners into thinking reform was just around the corner. For his part, Mubarak made little effort at fooling us, and I recall George W. Bush’s reaction when Mubarak would resist any discussion of political reform. He’s just too old, Bush would say to his own staff later; he will not change and he will not allow change. But in point of fact, in countries as varied as Chile, Taiwan, and Spain, we have seen dictatorships ruled by old men that give way to or evolve into democratic systems without bloody revolutions. We may be seeing it now in Tunisia, where the regime was brought down almost without violence and democracy appears to have a fighting chance. We might even be seeing a version of it in Libya, where, after eight months of fighting, elections proved to be free and fair and were won by an alliance of moderate, secular parties. The murderous, possibly al-Qaeda–linked, attack on the American consulate in Benghazi may reflect al-Qaeda’s continuing strength, but it tells us nothing about whether terrorism has popular support in Libya. Don’t these cases demonstrate that slow and peaceful reform would have been possible had it been allowed?
Such change would have given reformers a fighting chance. After all, extremists and conspirators are often skilled at fighting tyrannies because, by definition, they work in the dark, in secret, in hiding; in the Arab world the mosque is their preferred hiding place and organizing tool. The ones who can’t organize in that manner are the moderates, since their tools are open debate, a free press, and the ability to set up political parties. So if we see moderate and secular voices gaining ground among the populace even under the worst circumstances in Libya and Tunisia, where they are struggling against terrorist groups and against Islamists who emerge from the dictatorship well organized and with the patina of having fought the regime resolutely, it is reasonable to think they would have done even better in a fair match.
It may turn out that among the worst crimes of the old dictators was that they provided so many advantages to the Islamists in the struggle for power after the fall of the old regime.
The question now is whether, using those advantages, Islamists will take power, retain power permanently, and produce ever more extreme Islamist republics. This is not inevitable, for the dictators left behind more than the Muslim Brotherhood; they also left behind a real thirst for legitimate, democratic rule. Decades of life in fake republics have produced a widespread desire among Arab populations to live in a real one.
Right now the Islamists are using the tools democracy provides, such as free elections, to take power when they can, but their commitment is to the words of the Prophet, not those of Locke or Jefferson. And so now Arab democrats find themselves understandably worried that the ballot box they sought for so long will become a one-way path to Islamist rule. Thus we may see the tragic irony of a Western-educated, wholly secular industrialist in Egypt reduced to hoping that his country’s Army would crush and remove a recently elected Brotherhood government, while a radical Islamist will be singing the praises of free elections. Could the Islamists ditch democracy when they begin to lose popularity, as may well happen to them? Perhaps the Brothers will soon be quoting Turkey’s popularly elected Islamist, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once said democracy is like a train: When you arrive at your station, you get off.
It won’t be that easy. Democratic rules are too widely accepted in the region now to be so swiftly jettisoned. That is a problem for today’s secularists in Tunisia and Egypt—but wait a few years and it will probably be a problem for the Islamists there. They have gained power through the ballot box and have no way to resist losing power in the same fashion—except to seize power as the despots did and lose their democratic legitimacy. As Olivier Roy, the French expert on Islam and politics, has written: “Experience has shown that in the Middle East, when people are offered the opportunity to take part in free elections, they show up…. Islamist movements throughout the region are constrained to operate in a democratic arena that they did not create and that has legitimacy in the eyes of the people.”
If majorities conclude that Islam is not the answer and that Islamist parties have no answer to poverty or unemployment, might the Islamists anticipate defeat and simply cancel the next election? That, too, is easier said than done. “To impose an Islamist form of authoritarianism, the Islamists would need either control of the police and army or their own paramilitary forces, none of which they have,” Roy writes. “In Egypt and Tunisia, the army remains outside Islamist control (in Egypt, it may be outside anyone’s control). Elections will really matter, and their results can be expected to swing back and forth for the next decade or more.” Is this excessive optimism? It may well be, for we saw in August how quickly Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, moved to decapitate the army. Whether that institution, in Egypt or elsewhere, would defend new democratic rules, or new Islamist rulers, remains to be seen. Roy does quote what the speaker of the Egyptian parliament, a Muslim Brother, said in denying a Salafist demand to perform the call to prayer while parliament was in session: “We are all Muslims; if you want to pray, there is a mosque in parliament, but parliament is not a mosque.” And Roy believes that once democracy takes hold in these countries, “religion will not dictate what politics should be but will itself be reduced to politics” because there will be “a reformulation of religion’s place in the public sphere.”
This may be correct, but there is another possibility. As we have seen from Moscow to Caracas, democracy’s failure to deliver the benefits people expect can also lead to a desire to turn back the clock. What was once seen as intolerable repression can be transformed by nostalgia into a lost nirvana of law and order, and even comparative plenty, if the new regimes fail. There is an old precedent for this: It wasn’t long after the Red Sea split that the Hebrew slaves complained to Moses, “Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full.” In the months since Hosni Mubarak was toppled, a million and a half new Egyptians have been born. Does the new Brotherhood government have a way to feed them, and provide jobs and food for their parents? Perhaps the failure of the new regime will lead to its replacement in the next free election, but other alternatives exist. A new strongman or junta may find a path to power if there is real chaos and economic collapse.
And even if this is avoided—if parties can alternate in power and the Islamists can be removed peacefully—the long-term danger is not eliminated. “The next decade or more” is Roy’s timeline, and that is a very long time in politics. Even an Islamist regime that is defeated can, in 5 or 10 years of holding power, do enormous damage. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government may raise the status of Hamas and lower that of the Palestinian Authority; preside over an exodus of Copts and Christians more generally; or refuse to take the persistent counter-terror actions that are needed to fight jihadis in the Sinai and thereby avoid confrontations with Israel over terrorist attacks on Eilat. If such a government came to power in Syria, it might be good news for Sunnis in Lebanon but a disastrous development for the king of Jordan and his efforts to prevent the Brotherhood from increasing its power in his country. It is easier for us in the West to be long-term optimists than it is for Israelis, Jordanians, Middle Eastern Christians, and others to whom Brotherhood rule is a nearby and near-term threat.
But Roy’s comments provide hints at a strategy for those of us who are democrats and not Islamists, as do the writings of our own expert on the region, Fouad Ajami. In August Ajami admitted that skeptics see the Islamists as “opportunists who hijacked the democratic process.” Yet, he asked, “what choice do we have but to accept the democratic claims of these new Islamists….We have to grant them time.” They may get that “next decade or more” to perform, moderate, or fail—but meanwhile we have a role to play.
The first responsibility is to become far more vocal defenders of the democratic process than we were when the strongmen held sway. Then, we issued the occasional statement of distaste; now, we should state very clearly what our standards are and strongly denounce deviations from democratic norms. We should tie our foreign aid to performance—and not only to periodic free elections, but to respect for freedom of speech and press and assembly, protection of the rights of minorities and women, the rule of law—and of course protection of our embassy from further attacks. We should give plenty of useful aid and comfort to the moderate parties seeking to resist Islamist gains—money, training, and most of all any political solidarity they believe will be useful.
If this seems obvious, it is not so to the government of the United States. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Cairo in July, prominent Copts refused to meet with her as a protest for what they view as American favoritism for the Brotherhood and our slighting of liberal and secular groups. Visiting Cairo at the end of July, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, “I was convinced that President Morsi is his own man, and that he is the president of all the Egyptian people,” adding that Morsi “is truly committed to implementing democratic reforms.” Already in August, Morsi’s moves against press freedom in Egypt were eliciting protests from Egyptian journalists and human-rights groups—but near silence from Washington.
Given Morsi’s past—a lifetime as a Brotherhood apparatchik and in recent years a member of its Guidance Bureau, and a happy participant in Brotherhood election rallies that included extremist leaders shouting extremist slogans—one may wonder why Panetta was “convinced” so easily. Certainly Egyptian Copts and liberals will wonder, and will wonder if the United States is about to make the kind of pact with the devil we made with Mubarak: Look out for certain interests of ours, stay within certain red lines, and we’ll pretty much ignore the domestic situation and the fate of democracy and human rights.
That would be a historic mistake. Recall again that General Shafik won nearly half the vote in Egypt’s presidential election, and that the moderate, secularist coalition won a majority in Libya. In Jordan and Morocco, Islamists may win elections, but their ambitions are held in check not only by some opposition within the public but also by the monarchy itself. Each case is different (as Syria’s will be), but the pattern suggests that the Brothers are not the automatic and inevitable winners, or at least not the permanent winners. The struggle will last decades.
To say that we should play no role because this is a struggle among Arabs or Muslims would not be “leading from behind” but abandoning the fight. To begin with, there are everywhere non-Muslim and non-Arab minorities who clamor for our—Western and especially American—assistance and protection. Why adopt the policy that we have no role when Muslim and Arab moderates, liberals, and secularists are wrestling with Islamists? When European moderates and liberals were fighting for power against Communist parties, the fact that we ourselves were not European did not make us believe that we had no role. We have interests and principles at stake, and should defend them. And when people who share those principles and whose victories advance our interests seek our help, it is not rueful wisdom that suggests we adopt a position of neutrality in their struggle and a lack of interest in their fate. It is a new version of the belief that American “intervention” in the world is illegitimate, immoral, and likely to be disastrous.
The Middle East’s “big men” are nearly gone now: dead, in prison or in exile, or tottering. And while the old dictators claimed to be great bulwarks against the Islamists, when they fell they left behind only one well-organized political force—the very Islamists they claimed to fear most. They wasted decades that were marked by corruption and theft, repression and brutality. With their passing, there are for the moment only two forms of government in the Arab world, monarchies and democracies—each system with a claim to be legitimate, each now to struggle in its own unique way with the political, social, and economic challenges the region faces. Now their countries must discover if indeed, as Mubarak believed, Arabs must be ruled, or can rule themselves.
About the Author
Elliott Abrams was a deputy national-security adviser in the administration of George W. Bush, where he led the National Security Council’s Middle East and democracy directorates.