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John Feffer

John Feffer

Posted: January 19, 2011 12:51 PM

The campaign against dictatorship in the Arab world has brought together some strange bedfellows. The Bush administration's neoconservatives darkly dreamed of democracy promotion in the Middle East before the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires became the stuff of nightmares. Sharing the same bed, but dreaming different dreams, have been the Muslim Brotherhood and its fellow Islamists who have long railed against the injustices of authoritarian regimes in locales such as Egypt, Syria, and the Gulf States.

And now, of course, the predominantly young protestors of Tunisia have turned dream into reality by ousting their dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years at the helm.

It's only about 20 years later than expected.

In 1989, that year of magical thinking, a revolutionary spirit swept across Eastern Europe, toppling one communist regime after another before spreading across the globe. South Africans began (successfully) to dismantle apartheid. Chinese activists began (unsuccessfully) to agitate for more democracy.

In the Arab world, however, the spirit of 1989 had only marginal effect. Offering a little reform in order to forestall more significant change, Jordan's King Hussein permitted semi-free elections just days before the Berlin Wall fell. Islamist candidates there did very well - their leader becoming speaker of the parliament. Three years later, the parliament legalized political parties. But King Hussein backtracked on democratic reforms with controversial changes in the electoral law, and his successor King Abdullah clamped down even further on political and civil liberties. The main opposition group, the Islamic Action Front, alleged government vote-rigging in 2007 and boycotted the 2010 elections.

Jordan's royal family, like other Arab regimes that flirted with democratic reform, backed away from democracy partly out of a great fear: of falling victim to the Algerian scenario.

In 1990, the Islamic Salvation Front surprised everyone by winning 62 percent of the vote in Algeria's local elections. The new party won more seats than any other in national elections the following year. The Algerian government took a dim view of this democratic development, however. With French support and U.S. acquiescence, it banned the new party and threw its leaders in jail. A civil war began in December 1991 between Islamist groups and the government, leaving more than 100,000 dead and an authoritarian regime still in place.

At the time, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Djerejian made a much-cited speech declaring that the U.S. government opposed what it called "one person, one vote, one time," namely the possibility that Islamist parties would use democratic means to rise to power and then kick away the democratic ladder beneath them. It was a convenient rationale for the United States to continue supporting its traditionally authoritarian allies in the region.

Fifteen years later, Washington was still adhering to this principle when it supported a boycott of Hamas after its victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections and subsequent takeover of power in Gaza. Elsewhere, authoritarian governments in the region, largely with U.S. support, have repressed their Islamist oppositions in order to avoid both the Hamas and Algeria scenarios.

Tunisia was no exception. As in Jordan, Tunisia permitted semi-free elections in 1989 in which Islamists did better than the secular opposition, though all seats in parliament went to the ruling party. Leader Ben Ali, seeing the writing on Algeria's wall, decided to repress the Islamic opposition. He threw Tunisian Islamists in jail or, in the case of Rachid Ghannouchi, the innovative thinker and leader of the Islamist party al-Nahba, sent the opposition into exile. Ghannouchi's absence, and his party's ban, may well explain the willingness of the military to side with the largely secular protestors.

But the lack of an organized political opposition has also meant that the protests over the last month lacked coordination and that a cadre of Tunisian Vaclav Havels are not on hand to take over the show. Much to the protestors' dismay, the interim government has allowed members of the ruling party to keep their old jobs. Western media reports out of Tunis, meanwhile, have focused on gun battles, looting, and overall chaos.

The United States has remained largely aloof during Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, showing a marked preference for "stability" over democratic change. "The Obama administration's failure to comment on the Tunisian events is another indication of its more general hypocrisy when it comes to supporting human rights in Middle East countries," writes Foreign Policy In Focus blogger Rob Prince. "It is not that the administration is unaware of the situation in the country. The WikiLeaks cables concerning Tunisia, from a former U.S. ambassador to the State Department, contained very explicit and damning information, detailing the repressive environment in the country and the rampant corruption."

Indeed, as FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes points out, the United States played a role in creating the economic chaos that precipitated the protests in the first place. "Tunisia -- more than almost any country in the region -- has followed the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting 'structural adjustment programs' in privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of 'free trade,'" he writes at our Focal Points blog.

The main U.S. fear, argues Rob Prince, is not a replay of the Algerian scenario in Tunisia, since the Islamists have been repressed into relative irrelevance. Rather, Washington fears a genuine democratic revolution. "If it happens in Tunisia, which remains to be seen, who knows which country is next?" he writes in his latest blog post. "Egypt? Jordan? Algeria? Morocco? Or should I even dare suggest it, the least democratic but most strategically important of them all, Saudi Arabia."

Protests have already spread. In Jordan, nearly a thousand Islamists and leftists massed in front of the parliament to demand an end to authoritarian rule. Police prevented activists from demonstrating in front of the Tunisian embassy in Cairo. Worsening economic conditions have precipitated protests in Libya and Algeria. "Things will not be the same any longer," Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi told The Washington Post. "2011 will witness drastic change, and it is long overdue."

Democracy, as it comes to the Arab world, won't look like what emerged in Eastern Europe in the wake of the 1989 revolutions. With the exception of Tunisia, political Islam is a major feature of the region's political landscape. Washington should stop fearing this trend.

Turkey has emerged as a stable democracy, a growing global economy, and a major foreign policy player. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, is now the largest economy in Southeast Asia and the 18th-largest economy in the world. In both cases, Islam-influenced parties played key roles in the transformation. Once they won, they did not use democratic means to then undermine democracy, as some feared. They played by the rules during the elections and then observed those rules once in power.

Washington should encourage -- and not simply accept -- the participation of Islamists, as FPIF contributor Daniel DePetris argues in The Power of Political Islam. "Doing so," he writes, "would push the jihadist appeal further to the margins of Arab political life. It would demonstrate American sincerity in supporting democracy in the Middle East. And it may just usher in a new era of genuine reform in a region badly in need of meaningful political and social change."

If the United States can finally acknowledge the democratic evolution of Islamism, perhaps 2011 will indeed be the Arab world's 1989. Better late than never.

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