Jeffrey Goldberg writes in Was the Arab Spring a Victory for Extremism? that Mubarak warned him a dozen years ago, “"My people expect a firm hand. If we don’t lead strongly, they will turn to the mosque for leadership." Goldberg concludes that it turns out Mubarak was right – that he was the only thing standing between Egypt and the rise of fundamentalist Islam.
The above analysis is probably factually correct in the short and mid term. But it is the wrong or incomplete question or issue to focus on.
The bigger question is what did Mubarak’s (and other equivalent dictators’) rule do and does to help those populations evolve into more democratic and tolerant societies? And does turning to Islam for guidance have to equate with a closed society? The dictators aggravate the push towards Islamist power, as well as the notion that their government and all it pretends to stand for is anything worth supporting. In the short term, Mubarak put a cap on extremist groups that used Islamic tenets to justify their often intolerant views. But at the same time, their very actions increased the pressure away from moderation in the long-term because they foster more resentment and more hatred of the ideologies supposedly espoused by the West that subjugated and oppressed them with injustice.
Just lifting the lid is not a workable solution, I agree. It is not workable not just because it will put the Islamists in power. If that is all it would do BUT the Islamists would respect democracy and permit elections and accountability and democracy in another round, then 4 years of pain would arguably be tolerable to start building true democracy rooted and buttressed by freedom and protection of minority interests, etc. as any abuse of power (and closing of society) would probably be disliked by a majority of Egyptians. But as they did in Iran, once in power, it is possible Islamists will then support “One Man, One Vote, One Time” as Bernard Lewis once wrote, and will then prevent future elections and the self-correcting power of democracy.
What is the answer? As sad as it may seem, it may well be SOME role for the military (or another enlightened ruler who oversees the military) to be the arbiter for fair government and elections – to ensure that the elected government will be accountable to the people and will accept defeat in future elections if they are not re-elected.
Managing this process may be (and probably is) too much to ask of the military rulers, who above all want to protect their privileges and what amounts to essential control of the country. But if you were to find a progressive military ruler or leader, or one that would have the vision and enticement to modulate a steady move towards accountable government, then Islamists could win one or two rounds of elections but be accountable to their people and unless they enacted the policies that will build a better future for their people, which I affirm requires openness and freedom, then they’d be voted out in the next round…or certainly within a generation.
The question are a) whether we can have enough patience to wait at least one election cycle and possible a generation, and b) whether a force that can act as the right arbiter and selfless ensurer or democracy and openness and freedom will emerge and not be corrupted by power.
All of my thinking presupposes that people will ultimately price and covet freedom, justice, openness, respect, and democracy. Is it possible that they will actually prefer the rule of a few clerics if given the choice? I guess so, but that is rather unlikely. Is it possible that foreign policy will be far more aggressive against the US or Israel? Very likely, but it doesn’t have to remain that way as long as interests end up being aligned and the West and Israel end up working with respect with their counterparts. It will be a painful correction process – and it all has to entail a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But as a long term proposition, it seems to be the only way for true stability, peace, tolerance and respect to come about in the Middle East.
Is it possible that they will choose conservative policies that to many in the West will be abhorrent, subjugating women or minorities or people with sexual preferences they disagree? Yes. But in the West, including here in the US, we also face all those challenges. The key is to balance democracy with constitutional rights protected by a separate branch of government, and that will only come with time.
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