• November 22, 2005
  • 22 minutes read

Why Are Liberals So Weak In Middle East? By Judith Apter Klinghoffer

Why Are Liberals So Weak In Middle East? By Judith Apter Klinghoffer

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


During a talk he gave at FPRI introducing his new book *The Long War for
Freedom <http://fpri.org/events>*, 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,
<http://www.rotten.com/library/bio/crime/terrorists/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

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,"
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
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
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 <http://www.nationalreview.com/geraghty/geraghty052003.asp> 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
<http://www.meib.org/articles/0106_ir1.htm>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

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
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 <http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/17789.html> 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
"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<http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/768/pr1.htm>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’>http://hnn.us/articles/">all his previous postings. The final
tally <of’>http://hnn.us/articles/">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’>http://hnn.us/articles/">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
"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

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’>http://hnn.us/articles/">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

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’>http://hnn.us/articles/">demanding amongst
other things an apology from the Danish newspaper
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’>http://hnn.us/articles/">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’>http://hnn.us/articles/">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.