Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content



How will the Arab Spring reshape the Middle East? Add to ...

“It was Qaradawi who, in critiquing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, argued that Islamists should always participate in elections because they would invariably win them,” Mr. Rubin said. “Hamas and Hezbollah have shown that he was right.”

It’s not just Islamists who turn to Islam, Mr. Crooke said. “A lot of Arabs look to Islam for their values.”

A recent survey, for example, showed that 95 per cent of Egyptians believe Islam should play a large role in politics, even though only about 20 per cent support the Muslim Brotherhood.

Only 14 per cent have a favourable opinion of the United States, Mr. Crooke pointed out.

“They aren’t likely to look to the West for their values,” he said. “That’s where a lot of their problems came from,” a reference to neo-liberalism that enriched a class of Arabs but left out many others.

The growth of Islamic movements doesn’t necessarily mean a growth in radicalism. In countries where Islamic movements have been allowed to run for office, the process tends to moderate them.

Of course, noted Mr. Alrawi, “if the current democratic revolution fails, and freedoms are not established ... we’ll then see a spike in radical Islam.”

Don’t count on too much democracy

Those protesters in Tahrir Square last week have reason to be worried: What’s happened so far in Egypt is more of a military coup than a popular revolution. It’s the army that has sweeping powers, including the power to determine the pace of democratic reform.

This is one of the harsh realities the Arab world faces: Overthrowing a dictator is one thing; institutionalizing democracy is a lot harder.

In the case of Egypt, “don’t expect the armed forces to yield their privileged position,” said Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, and to Jordan, and Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Egypt’s military is an economic conglomerate, with retired generals running companies that manufacture cars, appliances and several other products, all with enormous tax breaks.

Many in the armed forces also agree with their colleague, Vice-President Omar Suleiman, that Egyptians are not ready for democracy.

The most that can be hoped for, said Mr. Bell, is some degree of reform allowing for greater freedom of expression and freer elections, as well as policies to abate corruption.

It’s not going to be some Western-style democracy, neither in Egypt nor in any of the other fledgling Arab democracies.

“The Turkish model is the best that can be hoped for,” said Mr. Bell, referring to a system in which the armed forces are the guarantor of the constitution, staying in the background and coming forward only if the elected government violates it.

But “Egypt and Tunisia,” said Mr. Bell, “are the only Arab countries with a reasonable chance of success in advancing even these democratic norms.”

Democracy is most stable in countries with high income, low levels of injustice and plenty of democratic experience.

No Arab country has all of those conditions; only a few have two of the three.

Yemen and Libya have little or no chance of success in establishing democracy, Mr. Bell added. Both suffer from powerful tribal tensions. As well, the United States is concerned with security issues in Yemen, and Europe is concerned about refugees from Libya.

“They’d probably like a benign autocrat to run things if they could find one,” he said.

Going further down the list, “Bahrain and Syria are highly questionable” as candidates for democracy. In both cases, the people are governed by a minority – the Sunnis in Bahrain, the Alawites in Syria. “This means the rulers will never give up power willingly,” Mr. Bell said. “It would mean political suicide.”

In fact, a former Western diplomat said he would expect Saudi Arabia to take action in Bahrain rather than allow the Emirate to concede too much power to the majority Shiites.

Saudi Arabia has its own restive Shia population and worries it might be encouraged by Shia gains in Bahrain.

Iran and Israel

When Egypt’s popular uprising was under way, many Israelis expected it would collapse; in fact, most wanted the revolt to fail.

Report Typo/Error
Single page

Follow on Twitter: @globepmartin



Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular