While the enormous crowds clamoring for democracy in Cairo have taken Western intelligence agencies by surprise and upended a generation of so-called “truths” about the Middle East, a small group of primarily conservative experts on the region are saying, “We told you so.”
Democracy, they have been arguing for years, is becoming “halal” – the Islamic equivalent of kosher. It’s just that now it’s going viral.
It didn’t just happen overnight, even though social media mavens — a Google executive who took a brave stand in Egypt, a father and daughter who crafted a YouTube video in Saudi Arabia, and thousands of Tweeters in the thwarted Iranian elections in 2009 — are now getting the lion’s share of the credit for uprisings against dictatorships throughout the region.
Rather, few outside observers noticed the democratic momentum building in Arabic and Farsi language chat rooms until people took to the streets.
“One of the great under-reported stories of the end of the 20th century was the enormous penetration of the West’s better political ideas — democracy and individual liberty — into the Muslim consciousness. For those of us who speak and read Persian, the startling evolution was easier to see,” former CIA specialist Reuel Marc Gerecht writes in an Op-Ed piece in Tuesday’s New York Times.
Gerecht, a senior fellow at the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, notes the fact – which Newsmax has reported and others have begun to acknowledge – that President George W. Bush had the right idea in trying to spread democracy to the Mideast.
Indeed, Gerecht writes, Bush’s “decision to build democracy in Iraq seemed so lame to many people because it appeared, at best, to be another example of American idealism run amok — the forceful implantation of a complex Western idea into infertile authoritarian soil. But Mr. Bush . . . saw truths that more worldly men missed: the idea of democracy had become a potent force among Muslims, and authoritarianism had become the midwife to Islamic extremism.”
These same experts also slam President Barack Obama for failing to capitalize on Bush’s momentum, as well his apparent dawdling in the first days of the Egypt uprising.
In 2009, conservative scholar Joshua Muravchik told Newsmax’s Ken Timmerman that the Obama administration was doing a real disservice to Middle Eastern democracy activists by cutting back pro-democracy funding Bush had initiated for Iran.
“The State Department cut in pro-democracy funding for Iran is part and parcel of a very deliberate policy by President Obama to diminish the role of human rights and democracy as goals of U.S. foreign policy,” said Muravchik, a scholar focusing on democracy promotion with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
“This is taking us back to a Nixonian approach to foreign policy, with the incompetence of Carter and the national self-effacement of George McGovern,” he told Newsmax.
President Nixon set aside democracy and human rights to deal with dictatorships such as Communist China and Soviet Russia, based on U.S. national interests. “The Obama administration has combined realism with policies that put the national interest quite low” on the scale of priorities, Muravchik told Newsmax at the time.
That type of cynical thinking now seems to have fallen by the wayside. From North Africa to Iran, the past two years have seen popular uprisings demanding democratic reforms and legitimate elections, pushing back against the belief that Islamic lands are inherently resistant to representative government.
Muravchik himself recently authored “The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East,” a collection of profiles of brave democracy advocates throughout the region. There has never been any reason to doubt that democracy could grow in the Middle East, he wrote this week on the “World Affairs” journal website.
“The hopeful scenario is that today’s drama will lead to what in political science jargon is called a “pacted transition,” which means an agreement between the regime and leading opponents on some kind of redistribution of power which could be meaningful only through honest elections,” Muravchik wrote. “This would create a model that would be hard for the region’s other autocrats to withstand. A wave of democratization would spread over the Middle East like the one that hit Eastern and Central Europe in 1989 (although whether the countries would end up looking more like Poland and the Czech Republic or like Belarus and Kazakhstan would remain an open question).”
Everyone now seems to agree that information accelerated the pushback. Muravchik and other scholars have long pointed to the growth in the Internet and social networking in the Middle East. While Western intelligence agencies often focused on its uses by al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, these scholars saw a remarkable tool for transmitting the democratic thinking of the West.
In Egypt, a young Google executive,Wael Ghonim, is now the focal point of attention for the Facebook page that fomented a revolution that could be on the verge of toppling Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Egyptian security forces arrested Ghonim on Jan. 25, the second day of the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square against Mubarak, a U.S. ally who has ruled for 30 years.
Ghonim, who was released Monday and voices humility about his role, joined the protesters in Tahrir Square Tuesday. An interview he gave to Arab-language television Monday night has been called a pivotal moment in the uprising in Cairo.
"You are the heroes,” he told the protesters. “I am not a hero, you are the heroes.”
“My condolences to the fathers and mothers who lost sons and daughters who died for their dream. These are the real heroes who gave up their lives for their country," he told Reuters afterward.
"I saw young people dying and now the president has a responsibility to see what the people demand," he said, adding these demands include Mubarak stepping down.
"Egypt is above everyone and it is for everyone . . . The blood of the people who died should not go in vain."
Although some have voiced concern about the Muslim Brotherhood’s possible increase in power in Egypt, Gerecht offers optimism in his Times Op-Ed, writing, “The Egyptian revolt against President Hosni Mubarak and his regime has caused many in the West to foresee a calamitous, unstoppable rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother ship of Sunni fundamentalism. The Brotherhood is frightening. Prominent members have sanctified suicide-bombing against Israeli women and children, espoused the vilest anti-Semitism and affirmed the holiness of killing those who would slight the Prophet Muhammad.
“But the Brotherhood, like everyone else, is evolving. It would be a serious error to believe that it has not sincerely wrestled with the seductive challenge of democracy, with the fact that the Egyptian faithful like the idea of voting for their leaders,” Gerecht writes.
Gerecht even sees Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as “evolving,” despite the fears of any such influence in the West, and that the unfolding revolution there will likely result in a multi-party system not necessarily dominated by Islamists.
Will this be the true legacy of George W. Bush? Like Ronald Reagan before him, he may be seeing the fruits of his efforts now that he is out of office.
Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, who has just returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia, told Newsmax that Obama’s soft-peddling of criticism toward Middle East despots has been “shameful.” George W. Bush "was absolutely right on his freedom agenda,” Land said. “He said the only way you’re going to fix this [terrorism] problem is to drain the swamp . . . I think Obama’s whole human-rights agenda has been sadly missing. I mean, I know a lot of Democrats who are shocked by how Kissinger-esque it has been.”
Elliott Abrams, a Bush-era deputy secretary of state, conceded that Bush’s actual policies didn’t always live up to his “freedom agenda” rhetoric.
“But the revolt in Tunisia, the gigantic wave of demonstrations in Egypt and the more recent marches in Yemen all make clear that Bush had it right -- and that the Obama administration's abandonment of this mind-set is nothing short of a tragedy,” Abrams wrote in a Washington Post Op-Ed.
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