• November 12, 2005
  • 5 minutes read

new wave of freedom

new wave of freedom

perhaps the Muslim world has to go through a new Islamist phase as the result of democratic change—whether Washington likes it or not

Lindsey Hilsum
Perhaps a "new wave of freedom" is surging across the Middle East, just as President Bush says. But democracy must reflect the view of the majority, and why should we expect vast numbers of Muslim Arabs to agree with George W Bush?

In Lebanon, it’s the battle of the demonstrations, with each side claiming "mine is bigger than yours". When the anti-Syria protesters came on to the streets, the Americans called it "people power" and invoked Ukraine and Georgia; but when Hezbollah–which the Bush administration defines as a terrorist organisation–pulled a hundred thousand supporters into Beirut’s main square, there was no such enthusiasm from Washington. Both sides wave the red-and-white flag with the cedar tree, claiming nationalist legitimacy, but who is to say which is the most democratic? Shia Muslims make up 40 per cent of the Lebanese population, and more than half back Hezbollah, which sees itself as the "resistance" to Israel and retains its armed militia despite UN Security Council demands that it disarm. But Hezbollah is also a political party with 13 seats in the Lebanese parliament. From Washington’s point of view, that may be undesirable, but is it undemocratic? This is the flaw in the American argument–it’s fine to call for democracy, but what do you do when the wrong side wins? It’s worth looking back nearly 14 years to the general election in Algeria. A radical Islamist party, the FIS, was poised to take power but the Algerian military intervened to stop the poll. A democratically elected Islamist government was deemed anachronistic and unacceptable. The result was more than a decade of civil war in which, it is estimated, 150,000 people were killed and countless more "disappeared", some at the hands of the Islamists, but probably more at the hands of the military.


Alastair Crooke, a former adviser to the EU on the Middle East, predicts that in truly free elections Islamists might do well in Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories: "Hamas could even get a majority–that’s shown by university and school elections, where Hamas has been getting a majority for quite a while now." Hamas is especially popular in Gaza, where it runs soup kitchens and provides the poor with one-off gifts of money.

According to Crooke, Islamists have adopted nationalist agendas, widening their emotional appeal. Jordan, ruled by a monarch who appoints his prime minister, cabinet and senate, allowing the elected lower house only limited influence, is a pivotal regional player. King Abdullah’s strategy is to support America in talks over Palestine and the situation in Iraq. A democratic election might easily sweep him away, in favour of a regime which backed Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the insurgents in Iraq.

What is the American Plan B should this happen? Decades of repression have left religion as the sole expression of dissent for the disenfranchised and neglected across the Middle East. Fear of Islamists is used as an excuse by the regime in Syria as it resists sharing power with anyone outside the ruling elite, but being starry-eyed about democracy and freedom won’t diminish the danger.

Across the region, there are political parties that appeal to western journalists and policy-makers. Their leaders are liberal democrats, often educated in the west, based in the capital cities, speaking the language of human rights and individual freedom. I find these people sympathetic, because they reflect my own beliefs, favouring a significant role for women and curtailing the power of the clerics. Their stature is enhanced when they are imprisoned and persecuted by the authorities, as has happened with Ayman Nour, leader of the new Ghad party in Egypt, just released after nearly two months in prison on transparently political charges.

If I were Egyptian, I’d probably vote for Nour. I suspect George Bush would, too, but the majority of Egyptians–poor, repressed, pious Sunnis–would be more likely to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, voice of the Islamist trend in Egyptian politics. If the Brotherhood won, I would loathe the resulting government. But if most Egyptians voted freely for it, wouldn’t that be democratic? In Iraq, a majority has already rejected the western-style secular option represented by the former interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, voting instead for a religious-oriented coalition of parties.

Democracy should protect all sectors of society, but the liberal world-view is not the natural alternative to autocracy in the Middle East. Perhaps the Muslim world has to go through a new Islamist phase, as the result of democratic change.

Americans are delighted at how quickly their idea of spreading freedom and democracy in the Middle East has taken off. But they may not like the result of this idealistic and ambitious policy.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News