An earlier version of this op-ed that appeared in the print edition
incorrectly identified the writer's credentials. Saad Eddin Ibrahim is
no longer at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
*The 'New Middle East' Bush Is Resisting*
By Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Wednesday, August 23, 2006; A15
President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may be quite
right about a new Middle East being born. In fact, their policies in
support of the actions of their closest regional ally, Israel, have
helped midwife the newborn. But it will not be exactly the baby they
have longed for. For one thing, it will be neither secular nor friendly
to the United States. For another, it is going to be a rough birth.
What is happening in the broader Middle East and North Africa can be
seen as a boomerang effect that has been playing out slowly since the
horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001. In the immediate aftermath of those
attacks, there was worldwide sympathy for the United States and support
for its declared "war on terrorism," including the invasion of
Afghanistan. Then the cynical exploitation of this universal goodwill by
so-called neoconservatives to advance hegemonic designs was confirmed by
the war in Iraq. The Bush administration's dishonest statements about
"weapons of mass destruction" diminished whatever credibility the United
States might have had as liberator, while disastrous mismanagement of
Iraqi affairs after the invasion led to the squandering of a
conventional military victory. The country slid into bloody sectarian
violence, while official Washington stonewalled and refused to admit
mistakes. No wonder the world has progressively turned against America.
Against this declining moral standing, President Bush made something of
a comeback in the first year of his second term. He shifted his foreign
policy rhetoric from a "war on terrorism" to a war of ideas and a
struggle for liberty and democracy. Through much of 2005 it looked as if
the Middle East might finally have its long-overdue spring of freedom.
Lebanon forged a Cedar Revolution, triggered by the assassination of its
popular former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. Egypt held its first
multi-candidate presidential election in 50 years. So did Palestine and
Iraq, despite harsh conditions of occupation. Qatar and Bahrain in the
Arabian Gulf continued their steady evolution into constitutional
monarchies. Even Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections.
But there was more. Hamas mobilized candidates and popular campaigns to
win a plurality in Palestinian legislative elections and form a new
government. Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt
achieved similar electoral successes. And with these developments, a
sudden chill fell over Washington and other Western capitals.
Instead of welcoming these particular elected officials into the newly
emerging democratic fold, Washington began a cold war on Muslim
democrats. Even the tepid pressure on autocratic allies of the United
States to democratize in 2005 had all but disappeared by 2006. In fact,
tottering Arab autocrats felt they had a new lease on life with the West
conveniently cowed by an emerging Islamist political force.
Now the cold war on Islamists has escalated into a shooting war, first
against Hamas in Gaza and then against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel is
perceived in the region, rightly or wrongly, to be an agent acting on
behalf of U.S. interests. Some will admit that there was provocation for
Israel to strike at Hamas and Hezbollah following the abduction of three
soldiers and attacks on military and civilian targets. But destroying
Lebanon with an overkill approach born of a desire for vengeance cannot
be morally tolerated or politically justified -- and it will not work.
On July 30 Arab, Muslim and world outrage reached an unprecedented level
with the Israeli bombing of a residential building in the Lebanese
village of Qana, which killed dozens and wounded hundreds of civilians,
most of them children. A similar massacre in Qana in 1996, which Arabs
remember painfully well, proved to be the political undoing of
then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres. It is too early to predict whether
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will survive Qana II and the recent war. But
Hezbollah will survive, just as it has already outlasted five Israeli
prime ministers and three American presidents.
Born in the thick of an earlier Israeli invasion, in 1982, Hezbollah is
at once a resistance movement against foreign occupation, a social
service provider for the needy of the rural south and the slum-dwellers
of Beirut, and a model actor in Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics.
Despite access to millions of dollars in resources from within and from
regional allies Syria and Iran, its three successive leaders have
projected an image of clean governance and a pious personal lifestyle.
In more than four weeks of fighting against the strongest military
machine in the region, Hezbollah held its own and won the admiration of
millions of Arabs and Muslims. People in the region have compared its
steadfastness with the swift defeat of three large Arab armies in the
Six-Day War of 1967. Hasan Nasrallah, its current leader, spoke several
times to a wide regional audience through his own al-Manar network as
well as the more popular al-Jazeera. Nasrallah has become a household
name in my own country, Egypt.
According to the preliminary results of a recent public opinion survey
of 1,700 Egyptians by the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Center, Hezbollah's
action garnered 75 percent approval, and Nasrallah led a list of 30
regional public figures ranked by perceived importance. He appears on 82
percent of responses, followed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
(73 percent), Khaled Meshal of Hamas (60 percent), Osama bin Laden (52
percent) and Mohammed Mahdi Akef of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood (45 percent).
The pattern here is clear, and it is Islamic. And among the few secular
public figures who made it into the top 10 are Palestinian Marwan
Barghouti (31 percent) and Egypt's Ayman Nour (29 percent), both of whom
are prisoners of conscience in Israeli and Egyptian jails, respectively.
None of the current heads of Arab states made the list of the 10 most
popular public figures. While subject to future fluctuations, these
Egyptian findings suggest the direction in which the region is moving.
The Arab people do not respect the ruling regimes, perceiving them to be
autocratic, corrupt and inept. They are, at best, ambivalent about the
fanatical Islamists of the bin Laden variety. More mainstream Islamists
with broad support, developed civic dispositions and services to provide
are the most likely actors in building a new Middle East. In fact, they
are already doing so through the Justice and Development Party in
Turkey, the similarly named PJD in Morocco, the Muslim Brotherhood in
Egypt, Hamas in Palestine and, yes, Hezbollah in Lebanon.
These groups, parties and movements are not inimical to democracy. They
have accepted electoral systems and practiced electoral politics,
probably too well for Washington's taste. Whether we like it or not,
these are the facts. The rest of the Western world must come to grips
with the new reality, even if the U.S. president and his secretary of
state continue to reject the new offspring of their own policies.
/The writer is an Egyptian democracy activist, professor of political
sociology at the American University in Cairo, and chairman of the Ibn
Khaldun Center for Development Studies./
© 2006 The Washington Post Company