Why Are Liberals So Weak In Middle East?

Why Are Liberals So Weak In Middle East?
By Judith Apter Klinghoffer
Ms. Klinghoffer is senior associate scholar at the Political Science department at Rutgers University, Camden, and the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East. She is also an HNN blogger. Click here for her blog.


During a talk he gave at FPRI introducing his new book The Long War for Freedom , Barry Rubin estimated the percentage of democratic liberals in the region at 5% and Islamists at 25%. One may quibble about the exact percentage but it is difficult to ignore the obvious weakness of the reformist forces in the Middle East. The more consequential question is, why? The rote answer is because the region does not have a large enough middle class or its inhabitants are not sophisticated enough to insist on a voice in the running of their own governments. The failure of the genocidal Sunni insurgency in Iraq to prevent millions of Iraqis from casting their votes, demands an alternative explanation. It may be found in a significant part, in the manner so called “moderate” autocrats block any movement towards democracy not only in their own country but across the region. Hosni Mubarak is an excellent case in point because as the largest Arab state, Egypt is not only the region’s natural leader but it is determined to remain so. Moreover, its Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, is the place where Ayman al Zawahiri, of Al Qaeda fame, got his start. Unfortunately, recent events leave no doubt that it is not a Middle East spring but a reconstituted “Holy Alliance,” that the aging Egyptian autocrat is determined to lead and that he considers Islamists’ strength and democratic liberals’ weakness essential to his success.

In 1981 Hosni Mubarak was a young vice president who came to power because Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamists opposed to his peace with Israel. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by men opposed to his war against the Confederacy. Charles DeGaulle barely escaped an assassination attempt by those opposed to his giving up Algeria. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by an opponent of the peace process. In the democracies, the assassinations turned the murdered leader into a martyr and discredited the ideological supporters of the murderers. Last week, Israel commemorated the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination. “Thousands Mourn Rabin, 10 Years Later,” read the headline. Everybody who was anybody in Israel, and a large number of dignitaries from around the world, gathered to praise the fallen hero united in their determination to delegitimize the assassination and to reaffirm his commitment to peace. No similar commemorations took place in Egypt at the 20th anniversary of Sadat’s assassination. “Egypt quietly marks Sadat’s assassination, reported CBC. There were no public ceremonies, no foreign dignitaries. Only a speech by Mubarak praising not his peace with Israel but his “victory” in the 1973 War against Israel. In other words, Mubarak used the anniversary not to affirm Sadat’s peace with Israel but to distance himself from that peace. He did not do so because Sadat’s peace was unpopular with the people. It was not. Indeed, Egyptians were flocking to see the new biopic on his life. Mubarak did it to carry favor with the elite. His spokesman, Tahseen Basheer, said: “I have always believed that the overwhelming majority of Egyptians supported Sadat for making peace, even if they do not particularly like the way the Israelis behave. The opposition comes from the political and cultural elite, who never forgave him for going to Jerusalem to address the Knesset.” There is evidence to back this.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a leading sociologist and human rights activist, admits that he opposed Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem at the time and was “one of the intellectuals who did well out of hating Israel.” But opinion polls showing that 70% of Egyptians backed peace with Israel made him change his mind. Prof Ibrahim said: “Sadat has been unfairly treated by the so-called progressive elements in our country.”

In other words, the handpicked successor of the martyred Nobel Prize winner, failed to use the assassination to affirm the political direction taken by the martyred man. Why? Because Hosni Mubarak preferred to use Sadat’s assassination to lay permanent claim on state power. Ironically, in this as in other matters, Mubarak followed in Sadat’s footsteps. As Hisham Kassem, the editor of the Cairo Times reminds us, Sadat “was stupid enough to encourage the Islamists as a counterweight to the Left – and they ended up murdering him.” In any case, for 24 years Mubarak ruled under emergency law. For 24 years he refused to appoint a vice president. For 24 years he pretended to “fight” the Muslim Brotherhood. For 24 years he made sure the Muslim brotherhood would constitute the only serious alternative to his rule. For 24 years he deflected any suggestions that he democratize Egypt. For 24 years he used Israel and the US as scapegoats.

With the exception of a few dissenting voices outside the government, Washington bought into the Mubarak narative that he is a bulwark against Islamism and blithely ignored persistant and vicious anti-American (and anti-Semitic) propaganda which emanated from his government controlled media. Instead of undermining Mubarak’s claims, the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center organized by Egyptian Sheikh Abdel Rahman strengthen Foggy Bottom’s belief in Mubarak’s value as an anti-Islamist shield. Nor have subsequent Islamist attacks on the US lead to a serious rethinking until 9/11. Minor skirmishes aside, Mubarak did not take the Bush administration’s decision to democratize the region too seriously. Egypt, like Turkey, objected to the Iraq war not because it loved Saddam, but because it feared losing its role as Washington’s premier ally in the region. After the fall of Saddam, Mubarak hoped that the Sunni insurgency or, as the Egyptian government-controlled media calls it, “resistance” will convince the Americans of the error of their democratization agenda and lead to Bush’s defeat.

But Bush was re-elected and Secretary Rice came to Cairo to announce an end to the 60 year old failed American foreign policy. Egyptian liberals were thrilled but Mubarak was not about to permit either them or the American administration to upset his long laid succession plans. Still, he did not wish to confront the new, popular administration directly. Instead, he surprised everybody by agreeing to permit other candidates to run against him in the upcoming presidential elections which were to be followed by multiparty parliamentary elections. But first he passed an new election law. It did not take the Egyptians long to figure out that the fine print in the new election law evacuated the presidential contest of real meaning.

When a young, photogenic Ayman Nour decided to take Mubarak at his word, organized a liberal party named Al Ghad and announced his plans to run for the presidency, he was thrown in jail for having invalid signatures on the petition qualifying him to run. Bending to international pressure, Mubarak freed Nour pending trial. In other words, Nour had to run for the presidency as an indicted man. It signaled the fate awaiting those who take Mubarak’s democratic rhetoric seriously. Mubarak won the obviously rigged presidential contest and diffused complaints about election irregularities with promises that the parliamentary elections would be different.

Indeed, they superficially were. The ballot boxes were transparent, trained monitors were granted access to the polls and, most interestingly, the “outlawed” Muslim Brotherhood was not only allowed to campaign freely but had cut a pre-election deal securing itself a minimum number of seats in the future parliament. Moderate candidates were not only denied a similar deal, but were mercilessly harassed, most especially Ayman Nour, the democratic liberal, who got more votes than expected in the presidential elections. After all, a moderate success would severely undermine the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood is the sole alternative to Mubarak’s rule. Tragically, having been told repeatedly by so called experts that nothing is going to undermine a candidate more than outside support, the international community, including Secretary Rice failed to come to Nour’s aid. The distancing backfired. Analyst Rabie explains: “Meanwhile, the US’s backing of him has recently been very limited; combined with the seemingly restored warmth in Egyptian- US relations as a whole, it’s the perfect opportunity for the government to do whatever they want with him.”

The mainstream media not only pretended not to see, but cooperated with Mubarak by describing the Muslim Brotherhood as the only viable alternative and praising its newfound freedom to campaign as a sign of true reform. Even the use Mubarak’s henchmen made of the liberalized press to plant a false rumor about a Coptic play to incite anti-Christian riots in Alexandria got minimal attention. The fact that shortly before the elections, 154 Islamists including Fouad el-Dowaliby, a man directly involved in the assassination of Sadat, were released from prison went completely unreported. Consequently, the first round of the somewhat less flawed parliamentary elections went according to Mubarak’s plan. Nour, the man who came in second in the presidential elections, “failed” to keep his parliamentary seat.

An emboldened Mubarak immediately moved to eradicate the last vestige of remaining liberal dissent in the country, the bloggers. A law student named Abdolkarim Nabil Seliman who opposed Islamist violence was arrested. Fortunately, the bloggersphere erupted in undiplomatic outrage and Abdolkarim was eventually released. He has yet to write about his arrest and he has removed all his previous postings. The final tally of the first stage of the Parliamentary elections is: NDP (ruling party)…… 114 seats* 70%, MB (Muslim Brotherhood)………. 34 seats 20%, Independents…….. 8 seats 5%, and NFC (liberals) ……….. 8 seats 5%. A blogger named Alaa reports that the turnout was 10%. At least some Egyptians get it:

The astonishing large number of seats secured by the Brotherhood in the first of three stages made a lot bloggers ask a good number of questions. Ramy (Arabic) asked the most important ones:


Was it (the results) a deal or conspiracy with the government ?

If it was a deal or conspiracy, who is the winner ?

Who called for this ?

Was it to frighten the USA to run towards the arms of the NDP instead of Al-Ghad party and the young oppositions?

Was it a tactic from the government to release its stronghold or a move to calm people down?

Why did the government “leave the door open” for the new opposition and “left” Ayman Nour to be that noisy and for Kefaya to protest and throttled the voices of the brotherhood. Now they have turned their policy 180 degrees and left the brotherhood win and managed cut the hands of the opposition ?
Ibn abdel aziz jokingly nominates himself as the head of the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that he is the first person to nominate himself to this position in 70 years.

With his domestic ducks all in a neat row, Mubarak moved in for the kill. This time the target was the carefully arranged and American backed Conference for Middle East Democracy in Bahrain. It was designed to be a kind of Middle East Helsinki agreement committing the region to the advancement of human rights and democratic reform. As is common on such occasions a draft resolution had been carefully prepared. In this case, 36 -nation “Forum for the Future” had been working on a two-page “Bahrain Declaration” pledging to work to expand democracy. Condoleezza Rice arrived to highlight the American commitment to the process. It was at this final stage that the Egyptian foreign minister lowered the diplomatic boom. He insisted on new language which would restrict the ability of NGOs to promote democratic practices. Khaleej Times reported: “We made a very clear case, there were intensive negotiations,” said one senior official, who asked not to be named. “It was clear at the end that if they [Egypt] were insisting on this language that it would scuttle the declaration,” the official said, but Cairo would not budge.

Instead of budging, the Egyptian left early in an undiplomatic huff. The Conference, ended in chaos and Secretary Rice personally humiliated. “American officials seemed startled that an ally, Egypt, threw up a roadblock. Egypt receives nearly $2 billion annually in U.S. aid, second only to Israel” reports the Washington Times.

I am startled that American officials are startled. Is it possible that they failed to understand the current Egyptian Pharaoh’s disdain of the American democratization efforts or his determination to do everything he could to prevent their success? Have they really failed to see the methodical manner in which he set out to decimate the liberal forces in the country? Have they not noticed his parallel moves to strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood in the lead up to the parliamentary elections? Do they really believe that his encouragement of the Islamists is a measure of his commitment to democracy? But, I may be wrong. American officials may have been startled not by the content of the Egyptian policy but by the public humiliation of Ms. Rice. It was much too reminiscent of then foreign minister Villepin’s treatment of Colin Powell. What did Secretary Rice do? The savvy secretary convinced Israel to agree to a risky deal with the Palestinians in order to give her a diplomatic cover. Given the myopia of the Western media, i.e., its disinterest in the Bahrain conference and intense interest in the Israeli Palestinian affairs, she succeeded brilliantly.

Buoyed by Mubarak’s success, Egypt continues its leadership offensive. The Egyptian foreign minister announced that Egypt is leading the IOC anti-Denmark diplomatic campaign demanding amongst other things an apology from the Danish newspaper which published cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad. At the same time, former Egyptian secretary of state and current secretary of the Arab League, Amr Mussa, organized a conference in Cairo designed to cut a Lebanon type deal for governing Iraq ahead of the parliamentary elections. While the Shia and Kurds are being browbeaten to rehabilitate the Baathists in Cairo, their people are being blown up in the mosques and markets of Iraq. On Saturday, the Shia and the Kurds, stormed out of the meeting when a Sunni cleric accused them of being American stooges. An agreement by the Sunnis to play by democratic rules will be greatly appreciated by all. So much so, that Mubarak may get away with scuttling at least temporarily the American strategic goal of democratizing the region.

Americans may be too enmeshed in their partisan battles to notice the events in Bahrain and Cairo but the region, indeed, the whole world, is watching and learning. One thing should be clear, the liberal weakness in the Arab world cannot be attributed solely, or even mainly, to educational or economic factors. On the contrary, the weakness should be attributed to the mendacity of tyrants such as Mubarak and their elite supporters. They know that enabling Islamists means riding a tiger but they believe that their own fate is tied to the fate of the tiger. Hence, they are not only continuing to ride the tiger but use it to fight their joint enemy, liberal democrats. If the Bush administration as a whole and Condoleezza Rice in particular fail to understand this dynamic, they do not understand the enemy. In fact, they do not even understand who the enemy is. Democracy fails to make headway in the Middle East not because it appears “imposed” but because it is mercilessly persecuted. Islamism is making headway because it is carefully nourished. Writing articles praising tyrants for the newfound freedoms enjoyed by Islamists is aiding and abetting the enemy. Giving 2 billion dollars to Egypt means giving 2 billion dollars to the man who leads the fight against the American struggle to make the Middle East safe for democracy. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise.