[Marxism] What Chance for Democracy in the Middle East?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 13 08:22:13 MDT 2016

NY Review, October 27, 2016 issue
What Chance for Democracy in the Middle East?
by Gerard Russell

 From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its 
Jihadi Legacy
by Jean-Pierre Filiu
Oxford University Press, 311 pp., $24.95

Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story
by Thanassis Cambanis
Simon and Schuster, 274 pp., $26.00

A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS
by Robert F. Worth
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 259 pp., $26.00

Our recent attempt to run an Arab state did not end well. During just 
over a year in which the US- and UK-staffed Coalition Provisional 
Authority (CPA) administered Iraq, that country began its descent into 
the abyss of violence and political and economic dysfunction in which it 
has languished ever since. In Britain on July 6 an exhaustive public 
inquiry led by the former civil servant Sir John Chilcot concluded seven 
years of work in which it tried to understand what went wrong. Its 
conclusion, in essence: Don’t do it again.

I did not serve in the CPA myself, but I did subsequently go out to 
assist Iraq’s first elected prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in 2005. 
I hoped that a government of Iraqis, elected by Iraqis, would solve the 
problems that foreigners had been unable to address. I was disappointed 
to find that this did not happen. Violence worsened; many sectors of 
government barely functioned; Jaafari himself, a kindly man, behaved as 
a scholar rather than a statesman. Western visitors were baffled to be 
engaged in discussions of the minutiae of American history, while not 
far away Baghdad was literally burning. People began to long for a 
stronger leader. In due course autocratic Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki 
was brought in to replace Jaafari.

There are many lessons to take from the Iraq debacle. The postwar 
missteps were legion. If the CPA had enfranchised Iraqis faster, instead 
of trying to install a blatantly American occupation government; if it 
had not rushed ahead with de-Baathification and the disbanding of the 
army; if it had paid more attention to the religious divide that was 
tearing the country apart—if, if, if. I myself doubt that it could ever 
have been a success. For one thing, such missteps were inevitable when 
the CPA’s principal loyalty was not to the Iraqi people but to the 
American government. Few Iraqis, furthermore, were willing to invest in 
an occupation that was self-declared to be a short-term one.

Second, based on my own experience, I do not think that the Iraqi 
politicians themselves had particularly good answers to their country’s 
problems. Perhaps there were no quick solutions to be had, but only the 
slow rebuilding of an abused and shattered state. If so, the most 
important lesson for us is that we should be doubly and triply cautious 
about breaking something that is so hard to reassemble.

That leaves the possibility that such regimes can be overthrown by their 
own people. In From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab 
Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy, Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor 
of Middle Eastern studies at Sciences Po in Paris, looks at just a few 
of the countries in which there were waves of protests from the end of 
2010 until 2012: Yemen, Syria, Tunisia, and Egypt. These differ widely, 
especially since Filiu also adds Algeria, in which there were not only 
protests but bitter, violent conflict. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak resigned 
but the military, which had propped up his rule, ultimately regained 
power. In Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled and a democracy was 
peacefully installed. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has used barrel bombs 
and Russian and Iranian help to remain in power; while in Yemen, Ali 
Abdullah Saleh has turned to the Houthi rebels to back him in a civil 
war. Filiu omits Libya, for reasons that do not quite convince, and Iraq.

What all these countries except Tunisia did share in the twentieth 
century was the melancholy and ironic fate of Arab nationalist 
revolutions—against British-backed monarchy or French direct rule—for 
the most part resulting in regimes that were more authoritarian, and in 
certain ways more self-seeking, than the ones they replaced. In 1952, 
Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser deposed King Farouk of Egypt in the name of 
Arab freedom, but he then abolished or controlled the courts, 
parliament, and press and launched external military adventures to 
undermine his rivals. French rule in Syria gave way in the 1940s to a 
chaotic sequence of different governments before Hafez al-Assad 
violently took and maintained control in 1970. The Algerian 
revolutionaries who overthrew French rule in 1962 then divided up power 
among themselves and later canceled an election that would have 
displaced them. These leaders used external wars, internal witch-hunts, 
and talk of foreign conspiracies to legitimize their rule; and at the 
same time, to subsidize it, they tolerated or brought about huge black 

If they had oil, they used it to keep themselves in power. Without oil, 
Filiu observes, they used the very instability resulting from their own 
policies as evidence that they needed US aid in order to keep terrorists 
from taking over. The fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in 2014, he 
hints, could have been contrived by then Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki as 
a way to make himself indispensable. (To understand the full horror of 
such a suggestion, one must know that Maliki, who was installed by the 
US, is a Shia, and that the Shia are enemies and the principal targets 
of the Islamic State.)

Bashar al-Assad today says that we should stand against Islamic 
terrorism. It was only five years ago, Filiu points out, that he was 
setting terrorists free from his prisons—a cunning and ruthless 
Saddam-style maneuver designed to undermine more moderate opponents. 
Just over ten years ago Assad helped to send terrorists across the 
border into Iraq. Himself an Alawite, regarded by these same jihadi 
terrorists as an apostate deserving death, he nonetheless helped the 
jihadi movements gain strength. Why? Because doing it created a threat 
to Western and Russian interests to which Assad could present himself as 
the solution.

Likewise, when Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen became America’s ally against 
terrorism, it would have done him no good at all if terrorism had truly 
been wiped out in his country. He would then have had no value for the 
Americans. He needed to be a good ally against the terrorist threat, but 
in order to stay in power, Filiu writes, he needed that threat to 
continue to exist. In February 2006, twenty-three al-Qaeda detainees 
were mysteriously able to escape from a high-security Yemeni jail. The 
outcome was that more American money was paid to Saleh in order to 
combat the increased threat of terrorism that the jailbreak had caused.

Filiu’s analysis is acute in providing such explanations of how the 
terror threat is used in order to obtain money and power from the West, 
but his prescription may sound too easy. “More democracy should be the 
answer,” he says—but some democracies behave in the same way. Bin Laden 
lived near one of Pakistan’s military academies for several years while 
Pakistan—ostensibly democratic when not a dictatorship—presented itself 
as a necessary ally in the war against al-Qaeda. The Afghan government 
elected after 2001 solicited funds to fight the drug trade, while being 
very heavily invested in the drug trade. Assad and Saleh, Pakistan and 
Afghanistan, deceive the United States in their counterterrorist 
activities because their relations with the US are based on manipulation 
on both sides. Neither side likes or trusts the other. Elections alone 
will not change that.

Still, Filiu’s book should make us think harder about the economics of 
power. When I was a political officer in Afghanistan we lacked an 
understanding of the hidden profits driving the conflict, the secret 
ways in which government officials made money from the war, and the 
financial deals done under the table between ostensible enemies. Such 
networks of corruption, once established, are uncontrollable. Like drugs 
in sport, corruption confers a competitive advantage that few can 
resist. In turn, the widespread practice of corrupt payoffs creates 
secret Mafia-like networks of shared criminality.

Once the use of corrupt money becomes a standard practice, it is the 
official who stays clean who’s taking the risk: he might be seen by his 
corrupt colleagues as dangerous. Sometimes those who are at the apex of 
the pyramid of corruption may be so much in hock to their criminal 
cronies that they fear to go straight. An Afghan politician widely 
rumored to be a kingpin in the drug trade spoke to me with a candor 
masked by the pretense that he was speaking hypothetically. A politician 
who has a narcotics network, he said, cannot simply walk away from 
crime: his family and dependents, his entire group of political 
associates, would turn on him if he did. No, he said with feigned 
weariness, such a person would have to stick with it.

I have thought of that comment when people have predicted that Bashar 
al-Assad could easily be persuaded to leave Syria and go into exile in 
Russia. They ignore that he is to some extent caught in the web of 
loyalties that he himself spun. To leave, and abandon his clients and 
backers, would be a risky betrayal. He might never make it to the airport.

In Assad’s case, of course, the allegiances were to some extent 
strengthened by the complex religious makeup of Syria, whose minorities 
in some cases fear Islamism more than they fear Assad’s continued rule. 
In Afghanistan, tribes had a part in cementing these relationships. 
Elsewhere they have to be built through intermarriage and institutional 
loyalties. It can be hard to see the strands of the web, let alone 
unpick them. This is another reason why occupying and trying to run a 
foreign country is a doomed endeavor. Some smaller lessons, though, do 
occur to me that could be learned from Filiu and applied to situations 
like Afghanistan.

Corruption is a weed whose roots go deep and wide; if possible, it has 
to be torn up quickly. Our Afghanistan aid policy should have done that, 
instead of flooding the Afghan economy with money that heightened 
economic divisions and provided ample opportunities for unscrupulous 
people to enrich themselves. We should have been more careful whom we 
helped. We should, too, have been tougher in confronting official 
criminality. The Afghan election in 2009 was riddled with it, on both 
sides—because, as I’ve mentioned, it gives a competitive advantage.

Filiu does not take up such reforms in convincing detail; but as a 
diagnosis his book is written with scholarship, passion, and clarity. 
Still, a central question did not seem addressed. What price is worth 
paying to change a corrupt or dictatorial government? I felt that the 
omission of Libya from the book was a missed opportunity to confront 
this question. Muammar Qaddafi was an appalling dictator; his overthrow, 
however, led to violent chaos involving a variety of competing factions, 
in which thousands have been killed. Can the struggle for democracy be 
conducted with less cost? Is the cost worth it?

In A Rage for Order, Robert Worth takes a much more pessimistic view 
than Filiu. It was, he writes, a “willed refusal” of the US and its 
allies to see that the Arab uprisings of 2011 would end in “civil war 
and Islamist bloodlust.” But the protesters, he writes, stood for hope 
instead of despair, and “you couldn’t help rooting for them.”

Yet against relentless enemies, the protesters, as Worth closely and 
perceptively observed them, lacked cohesion, guile, and pragmatism. That 
is also the view of Thanassis Cambanis, a journalist and a teacher at 
Columbia University, who in Once Upon a Revolution follows some of 
Egypt’s young secular activists and the story of Tahrir Square from the 
first surprisingly successful march against then President Mubarak in 
2011, through to the election of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2014 
and the reemergence of the security forces as Egypt’s ruling class. He 
laments the revolutionaries’ mistakes: “their incoherence, their absence 
of tactical innovation, their inability to forge ideas.” 
Well-intentioned secular liberals were quickly brushed aside by Egypt’s 
two most powerful factions—the Islamists and the security forces. The 
result in 2012 was the doomed pact by which the Muslim Brotherhood would 
be elected to the presidency on condition that the military’s privileges 
remain intact.

Cambanis seems to me too harsh: the secular liberal revolutionaries, who 
wanted the downfall of the entire government system but not religious 
rule, never had a chance. For one thing, as Filiu observes, it can take 
decades to build a cohesive group capable of holding power. Filiu argues 
that the Egyptian army officer caste has evolved over the past decades 
into a semihereditary “Mamluk” elite, since members of top military 
families marry among themselves. The Muslim Brotherhood is famously 
secretive, with a strong sense of discipline adopted from Islam’s old 
Sufi orders, and an element of fascism that was much admired in the Arab 
world when the Brotherhood was founded in 1928. Again, its families tend 
to intermarry, cementing loyalties. The revolutionaries, by contrast, 
were mostly surprised to find themselves in Tahrir Square at all. They 
had no time to build a movement that could protect itself, make 
alliances, and have plausible plans to govern.

Furthermore, in Egypt, large parts of the population were willing to 
accept the power of the military or were sympathetic to it. When the 
army turned against the protesters, their cause was lost. “In Egypt’s 
case,” Cambanis writes, “love of the military and comfort with 
authoritarianism run deep.” Many people preferred stability above all, 
believing “that freedoms are luxuries to be enjoyed only when 
existential threats have been tamed.” Cambanis disagrees, seeing 
pluralism and due process as the best long-term guarantees of security; 
but he does not show how they could be introduced.

A third factor affected the events in Egypt. It was easier than many 
expected to gather a crowd for Mubarak’s ouster. He had no great 
accomplishments, his repression of dissidents could be brutal, and the 
ostentatious wealth of his new elite was grating. Yet some of those in 
the crowd waving placards against Mubarak are now firm supporters of 
President Sisi. They were in Tahrir not to bring an end to military 
rule, but to bring an end to Mubarak. The initial astonishing success of 
the demonstrations masked the fact that many who took part in them had 
little sense of how to deal with the forces they would face when Mubarak 

A problem with secular revolution in much of the contemporary Arab world 
is that religion, usually of a rather intolerant kind, is often popular. 
Egypt, post-Tahrir, elected a Muslim Brother as its president. The 
representation of women and minorities in government promptly 
diminished. Turkish democracy, too, has been tending toward the 
religious right. There is a long-standing history of such tendencies. 
During the 1970s, when Anwar Sadat wanted to establish his own base of 
support in Egypt, he decided that official support for Islam and for 
religious authorities would be the best way to do it. When facing 
protests after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia toughened 
its religious laws, calculating that this would be popular.

Far from wanting a separation of church and state, two thirds of 
Egyptians in 2010 (according to a Zogby poll) wanted the clergy to have 
more of a role in government. As Worth ably describes, an increasingly 
aggressive piety had been one of the results of the country’s mass 
migration from the countryside into shantytowns and shabby suburbs 
skirting Cairo:

	In the misery of these new surroundings, populist preachers gradually 
transformed Islam from the traditional religion of the migrants’ 
ancestors into something new…. It became a shield they could rattle at 
infidels at home and abroad. It made them feel they belonged to 
something higher and better than the Westernized urban elite who 
despised them.

Partly in response to the growth of Islamism, secular and liberal 
opposition groups have often successfully been co-opted by governments. 
This in turn has made Islamist parties the main beneficiaries of 
revolution. More liberal figures are often easy to denounce as feloul, 
meaning adherents of the past regime. Few liberals, too, have made the 
intensive efforts to cultivate relations with the working classes that 
have been made by the Islamists.

The power of religious extremism and the damage it did to protest 
movements is a theme that comes across in Worth’s subtly insightful 
survey of the Arab uprisings. The emergence of the Islamic State has 
taken the pressure off Assad, just as he may have known it could when he 
released jihadis from prison in 2011. Islamic extremists likewise have 
emerged in Yemen, as part of a rebellion against its ruler in 2011, 
which now has become a civil war. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood acted 
so arbitrarily that it unified, as Worth shows, much of the population 
against it, making victory easy for President Sisi. The power vacuum 
created by the war in Libya has opened up space for violent Islamists as 

It might be that in order for democracy to succeed in the Middle East, 
the nature of religion there must change as well. Intolerant Islamism 
may have to weaken before democracy can take root. A sense of national 
loyalty must take precedence over religious solidarity.

These conditions may exist in Tunisia. In one of the final sections of A 
Rage for Order, Worth describes the country’s efforts to form and 
maintain a democratic society. Tunisia, he writes,

	had been the cradle of the 2011 uprisings, and in many ways the most 
hopeful. This was a small, pacific country that seemed—on the map—to 
hover in the Mediterranean between Africa and Europe. It had none of the 
gunpowder of its neighbors: no sectarian rifts, no tribal strife, no 
violent insurgencies, no oil. The army was weak and apolitical.

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s dictator, fled just days after 
protesters reached the capital, and by the fall of 2011 Tunisia held 
elections in which Ennahda, “the mildest and most democratic Islamist 
party in history,” won enough of the Tunisian parliament to form a 

Still, Worth writes, Ennahda was “reluctant to alienate its ideological 
base, which included many harder-line Islamists.” Led by the liberal 
Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi, the party allowed these hard-line groups to 
flourish, and before long Ansar al-Sharia—a Salafist organization 
calling for the creation of an Islamic state—was holding rallies across 
the country. In 2013, two leftist politicians were assassinated by 
jihadis with ties to Ansar al-Sharia. Facing an anti-Islamist backlash, 
and fearing a civil war, Ennahda resigned from the government and agreed 
to new elections.

In his final chapter, Worth gives a remarkable account of the way in 
which this transition of power was made. It offers some hope for a 
better way forward in handling the disputes that arise between the 
revolutionaries and the feloul, or the Islamists and the religious 
liberals, or indeed between different factions of any kind in a region 
where politics is too often a winner-take-all game. Relying on 
interviews and other accounts, Worth describes in detail the two men 
mainly responsible for averting civil war in Tunisia: Rachid Ghannouchi 
and Beji Caid Essebsi, founder of the secular Nidaa Tounes party and now 

Ghannouchi and Essebsi came from very different backgrounds. One was a 
poor rural Islamist, the other a dedicated secularist from a long line 
of landed Tunisian aristocrats who had worked for the modernizing 
dictator Habib Bourguiba, and had been an ambassador under Ben Ali. The 
mere announcement that they were holding talks brought outraged 
condemnations, each accused of betraying his respective side. But the 
negotiations continued, and, as Worth writes, the two men

	discovered that they had some things in common…. For all his 
secularism, Essebsi knew the Koran well, and often quoted it. Both men 
had been traumatized as boys by encounters with the French military, at 
almost exactly the same age…. Essebsi began to feel that his Islamist 
counterpart was a Tunisian patriot. And Ghannouchi realized that Essebsi 
had—like him—grown uncomfortable with Bourguiba’s autocratic ways long 
before the Ben Ali era began.

In January 2014, a new constitution was adopted, thanks largely to the 
work of these two men, each of whom faced fierce resistance from his own 
party. In the elections that followed, Ennahda received 27.8 percent of 
the vote, while Nidaa Tounes received 37.6 percent, and the two formed 
the coalition government now in power.

Tunisia’s current state is nevertheless fragile—it faces not only a 
crisis of lack of jobs and foreign investment, but also the threat of 
terror attacks from groups like al-Qaeda’s North African branch. Tunisia 
is per capita the biggest source of volunteers for the Islamic State 
including the assailant in the July 14 massacre in Nice. Two recent 
terror attacks have badly damaged the country’s tourism industry, which 
accounts for roughly 14.5 percent of its GDP. Worth’s conclusion about 
Tunisia strikes the note of realism that characterizes his book: “Even 
if the equilibrium holds,” he writes,

	it is hard to say what kind of legacy will be granted to Tunisia’s 
grand old men. The idea that they achieved a historic synthesis, a 
reweaving of the country’s Islamic and Western ancestries, is an 
appealing one. And in many ways, Tunisia did seem to have pulled back 
from the crater’s edge in mid-2015. The coalition government was 
coalescing and planning reforms, albeit slowly. Most of the Islamists 
seemed to have come around to the belief in compromise and 
reconciliation. Leftists spoke optimistically about a working 
relationship with the people they’d once hoped to eradicate.

	But the greatest dangers and the greatest opportunities lay beyond the 
country’s borders. Five years after the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, 
Tunisians still hoped that their small country could be a model, 
spreading its dream of reconciliation across a region troubled by war 
and tyranny. They also knew the same winds could blow in reverse and 
smash everything they had built.

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