What we know about the Middle East is that what happens in one country does not stay in that country. To the contrary, the Middle East is the model for country contagion. It was the self-immolation of Muhammad Bouaziz in December 2010 that set off the Tunisian explosion. In January 2011, that explosion ignited the mutually reinforcing rage of Egyptians and Syrians and led eventually from peaceful protests to violence. Then Libyan rage was ignited.
So here we are.
*The Tunisians have voted the Islamist Ennahdha, or Renaissance Party, to 43 percent of the seats in the new Parliament and Constitutional Convention. Four secular parties together won another 43 percent of the seats.
*Qaddafi and his defense minister son have been secretly buried in the Libyan desert while an investigation has begun into reports that the dictator was sodomized. The head of Libya’s National Transitional Council has declared, “We, as an Islamic state, have adopted the Islamic Shariah as the main source of legislation. . . Any law that runs contrary to the Islamic principles of the Islamic Shariah is legally void.”
*In Egypt, the military has been toughing out its critics and postponing any turn to democracy until the distant future.
*In Syria, Assad and his fellow Alawites hold out against the majority Sunnis, fearing their slaughter should the Sunnis come to power and take revenge for the oppression they suffered for decades under Alawite rule.
What emerges from these breaking stories is the likely shape of the “new” Middle East. The three issues that these stories frame are the role of Islam, the role of women and sexual practices, and the likelihood of a democratic transition.
Both the leaders of Tunisia’s Ennahdha and Libya’s Transitional Council claim to be moderate Muslims who will not enforce the harshest of Islam’s dictates. Rachid Ghannouchi, the Ennahdha’s head, spent 22 years in exile in London and claims to be running a tolerant party that, accordingly, should be referred to as Islamic rather than Islamist.
Participation in political life, he suggested, should be based on citizenship, not religion. Women should be free to remain unveiled. The party, he promised, would not legalize polygamy and would give equal rights to men and women in matters of marriage and divorce.
Ghannouchi is also widely known for his writings in exile, many of which criticized the Saudi Wahhabi brand of strict and severe Islamic practice. He has been denied entry to Saudi Arabia when he sought to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and has been disinvited from Saudi intellectual forums on Islam.
Nonetheless, his critics accuse him of hiding his true intentions – to Islamize the largely secular Tunisian society. His critics put him in the same category as Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, seen as gradually chipping away at Turkey’s freedoms while he advances the cause of Islam.
The head of Libya’s National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, shocked his countrymen by announcing that laws that contradict Sharia are void. He made clear that he was talking about a law passed by Qaddafi, imposing restrictions on polygamy. “The law of marriage and divorce,” he said, “this law is contrary to Sharia and it is stopped.”
Another sign of Libya’s likely future comes from early August 2011 when the rebel’s chief military commander, Abdul Fattah Younes, was killed in circumstances that suggest the involvement of senior Transition Council members. Younes had been a general in Qaddafi’s army who defected and was apparently murdered in revenge over his role in suppressing a 1996 Islamic insurgency for Qaddafi.
Ghannouchi and Jalil argue that “their” brand of Islam is compatible with democracy. It is at least theoretically possible that this is true. If the people could change a government that failed to bring about justice by failing to enforce Sharia, democracy could exist. In practice, however, this is highly unlikely to happen. (As the old expression has it about Middle Eastern elections – “One vote, one man, one time,” meaning that any election would bring Islamic forces to power, which would then fix subsequent elections to return them to power.)
What the Middle East is most likely to get is a lot more Islam and not a whole lot of democracy.
The suppression of women and the rigid separation of the sexes is a consequence both of Islamic law and traditional Arab custom. The result has been widespread prostitution and homosexuality in the Arab world as men are denied the company of women until marriage. (This is homosexual behavior among men who are not ‘gay’ in the Western sense and who will later marry. Then they may well carry on with their wives as they had done with their earlier male partners.) The reports of Qaddafi having been sodomized, either before or after he was killed, are not shocking in that context. Sodomy is the most frequent form of male-to-male sexual relations and it is the older male who is the penetrator as a sign of superiority and greater power.
The particularly horrid death of Qaddafi is a message to Bashar Assad of Syria — if he needed one. The struggle in Syria is not merely a struggle for power over Syria. It is a struggle to the death. But not just to the Assad family, which has ruled Syria since the father, Hafez al Assad, staged a coup in 1970. This is more likely a life and death struggle between the ruling 12 percent of the population who are Alawites and the rest of the population, 85 percent of whom are Sunnis. Since the rise of the father more than 40 years ago, the Alawites have cemented their control over the government and the economy, over the military and over foreign relations.
The Sunnis are fed up. Not just that the Syrian spoils go to a small minority but on religious grounds as well. Sunnis have long seen Shiites, of whom the Alawites are a part, as an illegitimate heresy. If (or more likely when) Bashar is overthrown, it will not be a good time for any of the Alawites. So the Alawites fight not to keep Assad in power. But for their lives. Expect the violent settling of long stored grievances and the imposition of a far more rigid form of Islam.
What will be the effects of the deepening of Islam in Arab public life on economic development? The failure of Arab states to generate robust and sustained economic development has less to do with Islam or Arabs than with the faulty development strategy that Arab rulers adopted – state socialism. The Soviet Union was the model when the Arab states won their independence after the Second World War. The results were as expected — sluggish growth at best, massive corruption, massive government expenditures on subsidies.
A new Islamic model is being created based on private ownership and Islamic finance. (Iran, for example, has a flourishing stock market – even in the face of Western sanctions.) It is still possible that more Islamic states will develop their economies to advance the wellbeing of their citizens.
Tunisia is the most likely to be successful. It has flourishing industries and free trade pacts with the European Union and Turkey that will stimulate its exports. Libya will always be a laggard. For one thing, Libya is far from united and possesses no overarching sense of nationhood. To the contrary, loyalty is first to the family and then the tribe. (Qaddafi, of course, deepened tribal loyalties as a ‘divide and conquer’ ruling strategy.) For another, the tribes of Libya will compete to control the distribution of oil revenues – something really worth fighting about. A national economy will be long in coming.
Egypt will be another challenging case. The military will not wish to give up its control of vast segments of the economy, both to generate revenues for military modernization as well as for the direct benefit of members of the officer corps. Further, the ‘crony capitalism’ of the Mubaraks has diminished the appeal of Western models and insured the perpetuation of the state socialism, which has kept so many Egyptians in poverty.
Any government in the Middle East that is more responsive to its citizens than were those headed by Ben Ali, Qaddafi and Mubarak will have to enhance the role of Islam in public life. The result will be a Middle East even less familiar to foreigners than what now exists — more Islam and less Westernization. Women are more likely to be segregated – there were no women allowed to see Qaddafi’s corpse.
But there is at least the possibility of good news. More Islam need not mean less economic growth. Nor does it mean more terrorism or Jihadism. To the contrary, opportunities for more public observances of traditional or conservative Islam is likely to reduce the appeal of radicalism for many young Arab men.