by Alon Liel
As the outcomes of the Arab Spring of 2011 take on more clarity, particularly in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, two central forces appear to be leaving their impression on the emerging regimes: Islam on the one hand and democracy and liberalization on the other. Religion is definitely in fashion in the Middle East, but democracy and modernization are also influencing the area, mainly through the revolution in communication. Clearly there is no way they can be ignored or negated. Throughout the Muslim world, Islam is perceived as an element that educates, unifies and preserves tradition, whereas democracy-modernization is seen as the means to improving, developing and above all creating livelihoods.
Anyone within the new and evolving regimes interested in keeping and combining both elements would do well to look toward the Anatolia Mountains, where Turkey has for the last nine years used a Democratic- Islamic model (Demo-Islam) which has proved very successful, bringing political stability to a country that had not known it for decades. Turkey’s international status has been enhanced, particularly in the Middle East. Most of all, the country has enjoyed dizzying success in developing and advancing its national economy and the welfare of its citizens. The Turkish regime that came to power in November 2002 is led by a religious leadership that also believes in modernization in the Western-democratic style and even in the secularity of the state — a very religious leadership that manages the country according to secular and professional criteria — a mix that is unknown in the Arab world. If you like, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Demo-Islamic leader, has managed to combine two elements that until recently were seen as oxymoronic — Islam and secularism — to the extent that they live side by side in Turkey in our time.
The First Social Revolutions in the Middle East
Looking back, the Arab Spring of the 21st century began in Turkey on November 3, 2002. The success of the Justice and Development Party in the Turkish general elections that day was the first of the Muslim revolutions in this century’s wave of revolutions. The Justice and Development revolution toppled an 80-year old Turkish elite that had run out of steam and grown corrupt. It was an elite that held true to the admired teachings of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, but which erred by slighting the honor of Islam (even denigrating it) and turned a groundbreaking political doctrine of an adored leader into an alternative brand of religion, one that was set in its ways with no hope of updating it and adapting it to the 21st century.
Erdogan, the leader of the new Turkey, did not send the masses out into Istanbul’s Taksim Square to create a revolution, nor did he arm militias of frustrated citizens, as did the revolutionaries in certain other countries in 2011. Instead, in autumn 2002, in dozens of election assemblies in city squares across Turkey, Erdogan demanded the departure of the Kemalist leadership in an election campaign that enthused and carried the masses with it all the way to the ballot box. The Turkish public, having suffered under the Kemalist regime and having been excluded for decades from leadership positions of any importance, made for the ballot box where they put their trust in Erdogan. The same public that had felt degraded and deprived because it could not in equal measure enjoy the progress of Kemalist Turkey punished the old elite in democratic elections and gave the power to the man whom the old regime had abhorred and imprisoned — Erdogan.
Additionally, if we look back to 1977, we will find that in the Jewish state, south of the Anatolian Mountains a very similar revolution took place without a drop of blood being spilled. In May 1977, excluded and deprived Israelis, mainly of Sephardic origin, deposed a secular, arrogant Ashkenazi elite that had controlled the Jewish state from its founding and even beforehand. This elite had not been sufficiently sensitive to the hardship faced by the weaker segments of society, including religious and traditional elements. At the same time, it had very successfully facilitated progress in the country, but not all its inhabitants could enjoy the gains in equal measure. Like almost any elite that reigns for a long and unbroken period, so too the Israeli elite, which controlled the Labor Party, grew bloated and corrupt. Unprecedented corruption scandals made it into the newspaper headlines on a regular basis in the mid-1970s, helping a social-political revolution in a relatively young country.
The Israeli revolution also took place at the ballot box, not in violent eruptions in city squares. Here, too, revolution came about because a leader was found who was able to lead it. The leader in this case was Menachem Begin, who until that moment had been considered an extremist and even a danger in the eyes of the ruling elite. But he was able to identify and locate the forces and underground currents of which the rulers had lost sight. Begin successfully diverted these people directly to the ballot box, as Erdogan was to do 25 years later.
Also worth mentioning is that two years later, in 1979 , a totally different social-democratic revolution took place in Iran, which brought to power an extreme religious leadership that continues to rule that country to this very day. Here, too, the disenfranchised segments of the population toppled a corrupt regime, which had held sway for many years by joining up with external entities and relying on their assistance, while at the same showing contempt for wide sections of the population within Iran itself.
Both in Israel post-1977 and in Turkey in the aftermath of 2002, whole swathes of the population entered the circle of political and national endeavor, which had previously relegated them to the sidelines. This new engagement significantly expanded the democratic base in both countries. In Iran, by contrast, the secular elite was replaced by a religious one, which did not herald any mention of democracy. While the influence of religion has grown in public life in Israel and in Turkey following their respective revolutions, this growth has not put an end to economic and technological progress. Extremist Islam on the other hand, took control — often using force — over anything and everything in Iran while preventing the sowing of any seed of democracy.
The Modus Operandi of the 2011 Revolutions
Perhaps it is not surprising that the 2011 revolutions bypassed Israel, Iran and Turkey, as all three countries had undergone social-political revolution in recent decades. More to the point, the modus operandi of the 2011 revolutions was fundamentally different in character from those in Israel, Iran and Turkey. There was no leader of any significance to sweep up the people. Neither was there one who had chosen in advance to operate via the ballot. The reasons are many and various. The nature of democracy in Israel and Turkey is profoundly different to any democracy to be found in the Arab states, which at best is still in earliest infancy. Even in those Arab states in which relatively orderly elections are held from time to time, no democratic infrastructure existed in terms of freedom of expression or the right to organize, which might have made way for a revolution through systematic political-party mechanisms and thus ultimately through the ballot. Removing the incumbent ruler would be an essential condition to changing the circumstances and opening the way to a democratic route to the ballot box. If any of the 2011 revolutions bear any resemblance to those of previous decades, the closest would be to the Iranian revolution, which couldn’t in any way base itself on democratic foundations, but which managed to depose the Shah to make way for Khomeini, who was lying in wait in France for just such an opportunity.
The Communication-Political Revolution and the Events of 2011
Today’s communication environment is also fundamentally different. In the last decade, the revolution in new types of communication has been turning the wheels of political systems in a way that was unthinkable in 1977 and even in 2002. Facebook, Twitter and other social media forged the way but also enabled revolutions to take to city squares. At the same time, the different methodologies of revolution now and in the past do not necessarily imply any change in the motivating factors, the goals or, indeed, the outcomes. The forces behind the 2011 revolutions are more or less the same as those behind the revolutions in Israel, Turkey and Iran years ago — the poor, the unemployed, the deprived and the disenfranchised, who by violent or nonviolent means seized the reins of power, deposed corrupt despots and took their place.
The international arena has also dramatically changed, allowing types of revolutions in 2011 that once would have been considered illegitimate by the international community. This change came about mainly in 2005, when the United Nations (UN) changed its view of the right and, indeed, the duty of the international community to intervene in events within a nationstate. This policy — known as the Responsibility to Protect, changed the UN’s attitude to what goes on within sovereign states. Initially, following the founding of the UN in the aftermath of World War II, the organization dealt only with situations taking place between sovereign states. In the eyes of the international community, the sovereignty of a state is a sacred value. It was Kofi Annan, during his term as the UN secretary-general, who gradually began to change the UN’s attitude toward the subject of sovereignty in order to defend citizens suffering from repeated violation of their rights by a despot or system of rule. Today the UN uses a mechanism that allows it, primarily through the Security Council, to intervene in incidents in countries in which severe crimes are committed against some or all of the population. This mechanism was successfully used recently in Libya, leading to the ouster and subsequent elimination of Muammar Gaddafi, who had for years persecuted many of his people. Syria should not feel itself totally immune to international intervention to stop the murder of any more of its citizens.
What Direction Will the New Revolutions Take?
Following the revolution it underwent in 2011, it looks as if Tunisia is the most likely candidate for adopting the type of Demo-Islamic rule introduced by Turkey. While the Islamic Party may have recently won the Tunisian elections, it is still in need of a coalition partner — and the cooperation of a secular leadership that is in no hurry to cave in — if it is to unite the nation and take Tunisia toward the democratic achievements that have so far eluded the country.
The revolutionaries in Libya, who took control of the country in a full-scale war during which Gaddafi died a violent death in the streets of Benghazi, will soon be faced with tough decisions. They must find a way to build a system of rule that is acceptable to their own population as well as to the international community that supported and participated in the revolution. The new Libyan leaders, some of whom aspire to return religion to a central position in Libyan life, will reach a point at which they will have to weigh up and test the Turkish model. Turkey will no doubt help them in this endeavor — although whether this will extend beyond talks to support for actual implementation is not yet clear. Under the leadership of Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, Ankara deserted the deposed tyrant Gaddafi (with whom they were on friendly terms) in the early phases of the revolution. They politically and financially supported the rebels, participated in NATO’s military attack on Gaddafi’s strongholds, and today maintain close contact with the new regime, including a visit by Erdogan to Libya after the revolution.
There is no doubt that Egypt is the most important of the states to have undergone revolution this year. No matter which model Egypt ultimately chooses for its new system of rule, it will serve as an important example to the other Arab revolutions, some of which are still taking shape. In the interim, the Egyptian army controls the country while Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in effect replaces ex-President Mubarak. It is highly doubtful that the Egyptian democracy being shaped will stop at this point. The new government that will be formed following the completion of the election process will have to move the army aside without affecting its capabilities of maintaining security. This is usually a highly complex task accompanied by high-risk power struggles. Given that the army can use its arsenal at any moment, it also makes the struggle a dangerously explosive one. There is, however, a regional example of how the task can be carried out by peaceful means: In the nine years under its new rulers, Turkey has gradually taken its army out of political and civilian life without damaging the country’s security. A democratic Egypt will make a mistake if it doesn’t learn the lesson from the Turks.
Syria through the Prism of the Turkish and Iranian Models
A regional revolution that is still in its first stages, despite the fact that thousands have already paid with their lives, is the ongoing one in Syria. Bashar al-Assad is fighting for his political and personal life and is still shooting on an almost daily basis into crowds of protesters. It is difficult to determine how the Syrian uprising will end, but we can look at how the region and the world are responding to events in that country. The precedents of Turkey and Iran offer Syria contrasting models from both sides of the divide. Turkish Demo-Islam has in recent months shaken free of Assad, allowed Syrian refugees into its territory, and enabled the Syrian opposition leadership to freely operate from within Turkey’s borders. It’s done this and more while calling on the entire international arena to act to replace Assad. The Iranians, by contrast, have stood firm in their support of Assad and continue to provide him with military and financial support, while publicly denouncing international efforts to boycott Assad’s rule and depose him.
At the global level, the world is divided between support for the existing tyrant and support for those who have risen up in revolt against him. The Western world, led by the United States and Europe, is abandoning Assad, and strengthening the sanctions against his rule. In contrast, Russia and China are preventing international intervention to topple Assad, and by threatening to use their right of veto, are holding back the activation of the UN’s Responsibility to Protect mechanism, which was successfully employed in the Libyan situation.
So the world is divided on the Syrian question — the U.S., Europe and Turkey on the one side; Russia, China and Iran on the other. If Assad falls, the rebels are likely to connect with those parts of the world that have supported their cause, and they, too, will look toward the more democratic model that Ankara offers. If, however, Assad should survive the uprising against him, we can expect a Syrian dictatorship under Iranian control, making Syria one of the only Arab states to be completely bypassed by the Arab Spring. It is difficult to lay bets at this stage on what is likely to happen in Damascus in the short term, but right now the American-European-Turkish formula would appear to be the winning one. If the overthrow actually comes in Syria, Turkey will be able with relative ease to market its Demo-Islamic model to Damascus, whose northern neighbor boasts nine successful years of successful Demo-Islam rule.
The Arab Spring Revolutions and Israel
The Jewish religion and democracy do live side by side in Israel, albeit in constant political friction. However, it is a friction that is not normally accompanied by violence. At the same time, at the regional level, Israel is more rejected in the Middle East than ever before. Its inability to reach any agreement with the Palestinians turns Israel with each passing year into more of a foreign object and more hated in the region.
Based on the current picture, we can in the next decade expect to see an increase in the number of religious regimes in the Muslim world, a scenario that will feed Israel’s feeling of vulnerability and increase its isolation. The fact that the Muslim regimes surrounding Israel are also likely to be simultaneously more democratic might have, on the face of it, eased Israel’s situation, given that its democracy is fairly well developed. But it would seem that this is unlikely to be the case. It will be more difficult to buy the democratic and Islamic governments in the region — whether with money and arms from the West or elsewhere — as they will be more directly reliant on public opinion and thus likely to be more hostile to Israel than the despots who ruled in the first decade of the century. Only an agreed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can bring in its wake a dramatic change in the attitude of these states toward Israel, in both the short and the long term.