Abu Dhabi -- If the remarkable transformations taking place across the Middle East teach us anything it is that we must unlearn all we thought we knew about this region. Paramount on this list is the paternal notion that Arabs will get democracy when we deem them secular enough, pro-Israel enough, and sufficiently in favor of our policies in the region.
The people of this region are earning self-governance through their own sacrifice and perseverance whether or not we think them fit.
The question now is, how prepared is America to accept this new reality? Many fear that democracy in the Middle East risks anti-American and anti-Israeli Islamists groups coming to power. Some of these democracy skeptics argue that the United States needs to push for upgraded autocracy with different faces, hoping this will stabilize the region and subdue revolt. Many Americans are wondering how we both safeguard our interest and rebuild our credibility with publics who love our ideals but believe our actions seldom reflect them.
According to Gallup research across the region, U.S. policymakers would do well to embrace a democratic Arab world as consistent with both our interests and our values. Here is why:
- Autocracy in the Middle East can no longer deliver stability. Whatever the short-term outcome, the long term belongs to the region's young people, who have proven they are willing to sacrifice everything for freedom. It is impossible for an unpopular dictator to rule through physical force alone. Illegitimate rulers must rely on their people's fear and sense of disempowerment to maintain the status quo. The mass protests taking place across the region have already succeeded in dethroning dictatorship because they have eliminated these tools of totalitarianism.
- A democratic Middle East strengthens U.S. security. Gallup research shows a positive relationship between public rejection of attacks on civilians and the perception that it is possible for oppressed people to change their situation through peaceful means alone. Moreover, we must not let the Muslim Brotherhood scarecrow distract us from our true enemy. Al Qaeda's original goal was to topple these corrupt regimes and argued that only they and their myopic ideology could bring justice through violent struggle. Nothing can deal a more fatal blow to the extremists narrative than peaceful, multi-religious, nationalistic protests succeeding where all of al Qaeda's bombs failed.
- Most Arabs want a democracy informed by religious values, not a theocracy. Faith as a reference point in politics is a staple of American public life, and is likely to be in emerging Arab democracies as well. However, the majority of Arabs, like Americans, favor nothing more than an advisory role for religious leaders in writing legislation. Also like Americans, vast majorities in the region say they would guarantee freedom of speech and religion if it were up to them to write a constitution for a new country. If new Arab legislative bodies truly reflect the will of the people, Islamists are unlikely to win majorities in parliament. Moreover, conservative religious parties have participated in democratic elections in Israel, Germany, Jordan, Indonesia and Malaysia. These groups compete in and do not co-opt elections, and in many cases, face declining popularity as they shift from external critics to invested policymakers.
- Arabs want domestic development, not costly wars with their neighbors. Israel and its supporters in the United States should not fear governments that reflect the priorities of the region's people. The protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other nations have focused on domestic grievances; corruption, police brutality, and lack of economic opportunity and political rights -- not their government's relationship with Israel. For example, Gallup surveys show that Egyptians' main concerns are better employment opportunities and quality education for their children. Over the past five years, Egyptians' life satisfaction and optimism has declined significantly. Further analysis shows that the most meaningful predictor of life satisfaction and optimism is satisfaction with the freedom in one's life. This measure declined from 80 percent in 2005 to below 50 percent in 2010. Despite their democratic aspirations, Egyptians are the least likely in Gallup's database of 150 countries to report voicing their opinion to a public official. Egyptians, and other Arabs, want to invest in the domestic political and economic development of their nation, not squander scarce resources on costly conflicts with nuclear powers.
The problems we face in the twenty-first century, from climate change to violent extremism, do not recognize national borders or distinguish between color and creed. Our success, therefore, depends on our ability to cooperate across these boundaries. Better governance in the Middle East will unlock the region's human potential, allowing the birthplace of civilization to contribute to global progress, at last, as full partners.
Dalia Mogahed directs the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center as well as the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. With John L. Esposito, she co-authored Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. She is also a United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Global Expert.