The turmoil in the Muslim world is both shocking and familiar. It is shocking because dictatorships usually engender stability – even if the stability is coerced – and because the media drumbeats always portray the fearless leader as a national symbol of glory and strength, beloved by the masses. Tunisia and Egypt – now with changes of government, albeit uncertain ones – have already succumbed to mass protests. Now, discontent is boiling over in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, Iran and elsewhere. And these scenes are familiar because they are depicted as following a narrative – even a template – that Americans recognize: the yearnings for freedom and liberty that animated the American Revolution 235 years ago and the anti-Communist rebellion in Eastern Europe just two decades ago. That the narrative is familiar does not make it accurate, and thus the need for caution and guarded pessimism.
We are not dealing here with Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison has yet to be resurrected. There is not the slightest indication that true democracy is a desideratum of the protesters, who are faceless and without an obvious cause or banner. That the military rulers, for example, have maintained that the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty will be honored, was to be expected. What was concealed, though, was the antipathy to the treaty by others who are being touted as presidential material – one, the Western hero Ayman Nour, who was imprisoned by Mubarak for running against him in the last “election,” has already announced both his candidacy and the “irrelevance” of the treaty, which, to his mind, needs to be re-negotiated. Others range from lukewarm to hostile, and the Muslim Brotherhood is obviously antagonistic, having assassinated Anwar Sadat almost 30 years ago for, among other sins, his treaty with Israel.
Winston Churchill said it best: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” The cuteness of the remark obscures the insight. The strength of democracy is that it allows a majority of people to chart their own destiny, and allows the governed to regularly give their consent to those who govern. The underlying assumption of democracy (as we know it) is that people can be trusted to make cogent, intelligent, rational and sophisticated decisions about the type of society, laws, and rulers they want. Unfortunately, that assumption reflects the great flaw of democracy: sometimes the people don’t know – or care – what they’re doing; sometimes the people will sacrifice stability, common sense and long-term goals for the appeal of oleaginous demagogues, insincere promises, and short-term lucre. In an American context – in the world’s greatest democracy – we are not unfamiliar with mobs voting for poor choices – crooks, thieves, knaves and thugs who make outlandish promises they have no intention of fulfilling. What can we then say about the rest of the world ?
It needs to be remembered that Adolf Hitler ran in democratic elections, and although his party never won a majority of the votes, he did eventually win a plurality that led to his appointment as Chancellor. However we look at it, with all possible caveats, democratic elections brought a Hitler to power. We would like to think that a Stalin, a Mao, a Tito, et al would not have been elected by free people; don’t be too sure. Stalin and Mao, murderers of more than 100,000,000 of their own countrymen, are still enormously popular in their countries. (Mao’s portrait “graces” every Chinese bill in circulation.) What has become a modern-day mantra – the fear of “one man, one vote, one time” – is not far from reality. There are many people who will vote to be enslaved, as long as it is not presented as enslavement. For that reason, Aristotle deprecated democracy as “mob rule.”
In that sense, the Muslim Middle East represents a particular muddle. Americans and Westerners may fantasize that Egyptians, Tunisians – and perhaps Bahrainis, Yemenis, Syrians, etc. – will overthrow their autocrats and implement parliamentary or republican democracies, in which authorized representatives accountable to the people enact laws, minority rights are protected, basic civil rights are preserved, liberty and free enterprise are guaranteed, and power changes hands through orderly elections whose outcomes are heeded. But that is a pipedream, as likely as a candidate in any of those elections running on a pro-Zionist platform.
It is almost impossible to conjure a scenario in which a democracy will be established and sustained in any of those countries. Three possibilities are much more likely, each fraught with potential danger. In Egypt, for example, the army has seized power, after orchestrating an overthrow of Mubarak, and military control of government is a common phenomenon. Mubarak, Sadat and Nasser all had military backgrounds that assisted them in their drive for power. The army might also appoint a strong-man, essentially a replacement for the previous autocrat, but perhaps someone with a kinder face and more pleasing disposition. That strong-man might be from the military, or even a civilian who rules but owes his power to the military. Both those possibilities are washes, in which nothing really changes on the ground, but with two consequences. Stability is restored, but the seeds are planted for future discontent, and statecraft is again the domain of one person instead of a government. So, for example, Egypt-Israel relations could deteriorate further if the strong-man is so inclined, or revert to the coldness of the Mubarak era. All follows the whim of the ruler.
Both those possibilities – in Egypt and elsewhere – are preferable to the third possibility: the encroachment by radical Islam on the organs of government and their eventual takeover. Unfortunately, the history of the Muslim world points to this as the most likely outcome except in those states in which there is a powerful, explicit and countervailing military presence. In Islam, power often flows to the lowest common denominator – to the most radical elements that are less hesitant about using force to sustain their power. (Khomeini’s secret police rivaled the Shah’s in their brutality.)And the lure of Islam as a simplistic answer to every problem that afflicts Muslim society is compelling enough to carry elections – along with the promise of paradise for voters and purgatory for opponents. They could easily win – just look at the electoral success of Hezbollah in Lebanon, now the controlling force in that country.
The sands are shifting in the Middle East, and the unease in Israel is warranted. To date, the statements emanating from the Arab world are predictable. That two Iranian warships are sailing through the Suez Canal in the next few days en route to Syria – a clear provocation to Israel – is worrisome, and the sort of endeavor that Mubarak – an adversary of Iran – would not have permitted. Israel’s best hope for the short term rests in Arab strong men holding power, ameliorating the people’s economic woes, and ensuring stability and the maintenance of ties and interests. It also has to re-calibrate its diplomacy and realize the futility of exchanging real assets for the personal commitments of tenuous dictators.
Indeed, its best strategy is one that was articulated years ago by Natan Sharansky (who greatly influenced President Bush): insist on real democratization in the Arab world as a pre-condition to diplomatic progress. That should guarantee a long and endless process that allows Israel sufficient time and opportunity to put facts on the ground that make Jewish settlement in Israel permanent and attractive and Arab residence temporary and unappealing.
What it should not do is look to the superficial aspects of democracy – an election – as a sign of a greater transformation. Often, when “the people have spoken,” they have either made no sense, or have acted contrary to their real interests and wellbeing. That is democracy’s internal – and eternal – weakness.