The growing unrest in the Arabic world among Islamic states is leading to concern that the demonstrations are being driven more by a desire for stricter Islamic rule than for democratic reforms. Many of the protesters are being organized by hardline Islamic organizations. Although some of the Arab leaders being challenged are brutal dictators like Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, many are considered secular rulers and allies of the U.S. These uprisings have troubling similarities to the Iranian revolution of 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power by hiding his intentions of creating despotic rule by clerics behind the false promise of democratic reforms.
There is an unwritten social contract in Persian Gulf countries which says that autocratic monarchies are accepted as long as they provide free housing, health care, education, food subsidies, and a government job for life. The demonstrators appear more concerned about obtaining additional government benefits than achieving real democratic reforms like enacting a democratic form of government. Although some are hoping the uprisings are similar to the 1989 democratic revolutions that swept Eastern Europe, those anti-communist uprisings clearly called for replacing totalitarianism with democracy.
Hard-line Islamic clerics in the Arabic world are encouraging the uprisings, and recently released statements of support that harshly warned against changes leading to democratic and secular governments. Al Qaeda is also inciting the protests and calling for Islamic rule. On Saturday, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula posted an audio recording across websites urging Muslims to revolt against Arab rulers and to establish governments based on Islamic religious law, or Shariah.
The protests began in December in Tunisia, in response to a street vendor who immolated himself over unfair treatment by the police. Demonstrators forced Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country, and then forced out Egyptian President Hosni Barak, a U.S. ally. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is expected to fall next. The protests are gaining momentum in Bahrain and Yemen, and have spread to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Qatar, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Oman. A massive “Day of Rage” protest was held in several countries on Friday. Other countries are planning their own “Day of Rage” on March 1, 2011, including Iran, which is predominantly Persian, and Syria. A protest is planned for March 3 in Sudan.
There are multiple indications across the Arabic states that the demonstrations may lead to stricter Islamic rule, not democratic reforms. On March 1, 2011, Tunisia legalized its Islamist movement, Ennahda, for the first time in 30 years. The post-Mubarak administration in Egypt has invited the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in the review of Egypt’s constitution, and for the first time in 30 years the regime is allowing Iranian navy ships through the Suez Canal. Iranian clerics are boasting that the Egyptian demonstrations are following in the path of the Iranian revolution. A recent Zogby poll found that 65% of Egyptians believe that Islamic clergy must play a greater role in the Egyptian political system.
In Yemen, where al Qaeda has a strong presence, the main coalition opposed to the U.S.-backed president Ali Abdullah Saleh is the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), which contains Islah, the country’s primary Islamist party. The changes President Saleh is making to appease demonstrators are not democratic reforms but rather the creation of more government benefits, like increasing social services, tuition assistance and the salaries of government employees and the military.
The protesters in Bahrain are substantially composed of hard-line Shiites backed by Iranian Shiites, and it is feared that if Bahrain’s more moderate Sunni monarchy yields to them it could allow Iran’s Shiite theocratic government to gain control. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been one of the most vocal supporters of the uprisings across the Arab world. The U.S. stands to lose considerably should this happen. The Navy’s Fifth Fleet currently resides in Bahrain, and is the Pentagon’s main counterweight against Iran’s military ambitions.
In Jordan, the largest opposition group to U.S. ally King Abdullah II is the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab movement of Islamic fundamentalists with ties to Hamas and roots in Egypt. King Abdullah has expressed fear that continued U.S. pressure for more reforms, riling up the protesters, could strengthen hard-line Islamists. His response has been to promise pay raises. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has similar concerns, fearing that protests in support of the Egyptian demonstrators could turn violent, allowing Hamas to destabilize the West Bank.
Another country with a pro-Western leader targeted by protests is Oman’s sultan, Qaboos bin Said. His response to demonstrators’ demands for more jobs has been to hire 50,000 new government employees and offer $390 a month in unemployment insurance.
The nature of the protesters’ behavior not only lacks a real desire for democratic reform, but contains disturbing elements. Young protesters in Bahrain are chanting “death to the al-Khalifa family.” The choice of “Day of Rage” as the name for massive demonstrations instead of something like “Day of Change” speaks volumes. Protesters everywhere have set buildings on fire. The anti-Israel message of many of the demonstrators threatens to deteriorate relations throughout the Middle East with Israel. Protesters in Qatar demanding the resignation of its pro-Western emir accuse him of being an agent of Israel. Their Facebook fan page was up to 18,262 fans on Saturday.
Even if the majority of protesters genuinely want democratic reforms, opposition leaders may pull a bait and switch upon assuming power, using the momentum to establish stricter Islamic states. It is too early and naively optimistic to conclude that these uprisings will lead to more democracy and freedom.