Tyrus W. Cobb: Whither the revolutions in the Arab world?
For the Nevada Appeal
The revolutions in the Arab world both encourage and worry me deeply. On the one hand, the ouster of long time autocrat Hosni Mubarak as president of Egypt, the overthrow of the despotic Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, and the possible removal of Libyan megalomaniac Moammar Gadhafi are cause for joy. What concerns me is what comes next, not only in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, but in Yemen, Bahrain, and even Saudi Arabia.
The revolutions in the Arab world were spurred on by restless youth clamoring for more opportunity, education, and democracy. They tend to be from wealthy families, are fairly well educated, and are more secular in their religious orientation. They used social media to advance their cause, artfully secured international support, and presented a hopeful image of a future generation of leaders driven by many of the same ideals and dreams that motivate us.
However, the leadership of these revolutions is shifting from youthful activists to Islamic religious leaders, reports Matt Bradley (Wall Street Journal, March 21), at least in Egypt, the most significant country in this wave of revolutionary activity. These are nations without a history of political parties, of the civil exchange of opinions, or respect for differing viewpoints. The political cultures in these Arab states instead fostered repressive governmental regimes, and radical Islamist parties with a disdain for democracy, women’s’ rights, and religious pluralism. The autocracies found it convenient to permit and even encourage religious extremism as an outlet for popular unease, as long as it was directed toward Israel, the West or some other bogeyman. They did not permit or assist the growth of political movements that might challenge their authority.
Today in Egypt the protest leaders hailed as heroes just a month ago, are no longer leading the revolution. The well-educated, secular-oriented liberals have little appeal among Egypt’s largely impoverished, under-educated populace, Bradley notes. The one mass movement with organizational skills, firm discipline and an ability to energize the masses is the Muslim Brotherhood, the radical Islamist group.
I worry that this will be replicated in other Arab states. We all know that Gadhafi is a vicious ruler who sponsored global terrorism. At the same time he has been relatively quiescent for years, responding to Western pressure by abandoning his nuclear weapons program and muting support for Jihadists. In fact, he charges that al-Qaida is behind the rebel movement threatening his regime. He may be partially right – we know little about the rebel group’s goals, but we do know that more Jihadists per capita came from eastern Libya to fight the U.S. in Iraq than anywhere else.
The Obama administration has conducted the conflict against Gadhafi with some skill. While Obama was criticized for not imposing a “No Fly Zone” or other military measures earlier, I think it was important to have gained official U.N. approval for the actions (and persuading Russia and China not to veto!) and having the endorsement of the Arab League. We now want to step back and put someone else in the lead – anyone else. But who?
Most likely we’re stuck once again, militarily committed to a third major engagement in the region and with the responsibility for insuring peaceful transitions to some form of democratic pluralism in countries where it has never
My heart hopes for the best outcomes. My head tells me that well disciplined, intransigent, extreme groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are more likely to emerge triumphant. I hope I am wrong.
• Tyrus W. Cobb served as Special Assistant to President Reagan for National Security Affairs (1983-89).