The Real Threat in the Middle East

Islamic political parties don’t endanger democracy. Powerful leaders do

By Fareed Zakaria

As 2011 was coming to a close, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a remarkable speech to his parliament. Assessing the Arab Spring barely a year after it had begun, Netanyahu announced triumphantly that it had failed, that events had confirmed his extreme suspicion about the pro-democracy movements in the region. The Arab Spring was moving the Middle East “not forward, but backward.”

Netanyahu seems to endorse the Syrian regime’s approach to political protest. During the uprising in Egypt, he wanted the U.S. to stubbornly cling to Hosni Mubarak–who had cooperated with Israel on mutual security issues–as millions of Egyptians gathered in public squares across the country to demand democracy. But leaving that aside, the evidence for Netanyahu’s pessimism now is that parties advocating an Islamic approach to politics have won pluralities in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections. None of these parties have abrogated civil liberties or persecuted minorities or limited women’s rights. Each party has promised to abide by constitutional processes. This may all be a ruse, and they may prove less liberal over time–some surely will–but there is little current evidence from which to draw the sweeping conclusions that Netanyahu did.

In fact, the growth of democracy in the Middle East is under substantial threat, but not from Islamic democrats. The threat arises from the lingering authoritarian impulse of those in power–from ruling political parties and from the military. Obsessed with political Islam, we are ignoring the real danger on the ground.

Consider Egypt. While Netanyahu is fretting about Islamic parliamentarians, the Egyptian military has been busily consolidating its control. A few weeks ago, the government raided the offices of 10 civic organizations whose only mission is to promote democracy, the rule of law and civil rights. It accused a few of these groups, such as Freedom House and the International Republican Institute, of receiving funds from the U.S.

Egypt’s military has used the traditional tools of authoritarian regimes to retain power–arrests, torture, military trials and scaremongering. In Iraq, six years after the country’s first free elections, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is using more unusual methods to cement his grip on the country. He has ordered the arrests of leading politicians–including his own Vice President (who comes from another sect and political party)–centralized the army and intelligence services and inserted his own party, the Dawa, into most of the major organs of government. Many Iraqis believe that Maliki refused to cut a deal with Washington so that American troops would have to leave Iraq and leave him unconstrained.

The most complex case is Turkey, where the former head of the military, General Ilker Basbug–one of 60 officers accused of a conspiracy to topple the democratically elected government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan–was arrested last week. These arrests are cited as one more piece of evidence that Turkey is turning away from its secular roots and toward Islamic fundamentalism.

Prime Minister Erdogan speaks in blunt ways and is a populist. But he has done nothing–no changes in laws or practices–to warrant the charge that he is dismantling secularism. In fact, Erdogan’s government has passed more economic and political reforms than any other Turkish government in history. It has made unprecedented concessions to Turkey’s Kurdish minority. In its quest to secure European Union membership for Turkey, Erdogan’s AK Party has passed hundreds of pieces of legislation over the past several decades to make Turkey’s political system conform to the guidelines set out by the Brussels bureaucrats. And by the way, the Turkish military has, over the years, planned and executed four coups against elected governments, so it is not inconceivable that it had been planning a fifth.

If there is a worry regarding Turkey, it is not about political Islam but about the autocratic tendencies of a wildly popular politician. Turkey has a highly authoritarian legal system, a legacy of its military era. (A human rights group notes that about half the nation’s prisoners have never been charged with crimes.) And Erdogan, having won his third thumping electoral victory, has used this system to harass opponents, including politicians, journalists and generals.

In other words, the danger in the Middle East is not that Islam corrupts but that power corrupts. A more open and democratic system is no panacea, but it will begin to create a more normal, modern politics for the region, one that will allow for populism and demagoguery but also provide greater accountability, transfers of power and media oversight. And that will move the Middle East forward, not back.

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