Defying Middle East autocrats

ISLAM AND THE WEST By Daniel Brumberg THE Islamic Republic of Iran is not about to implode. Nevertheless, the misguided … Continued

ISLAM AND THE WEST

By Daniel Brumberg

THE Islamic Republic of Iran is not about to implode. Nevertheless, the misguided idea that it may do so is becoming enshrined as conventional wisdom in Washington.
– Flynt and Hillary Leverett, New York Times, January 5, 2010.

I can’t think of a foreign policy op/ed that has provoked more heat than that of the Leveretts. Employing their characteristic, in-your-face style, they have done their utmost to discredit the idea that the Ahsura protests that broke out some three weeks ago signal an eminent fall of the Iranian regime.

I am not going to venture an analysis of the Leverett piece. Their many critics and few tepid supporters have been at it for weeks. But whatever their views, I suspect that the most important reason why their article has touched a raw nerve is this: it points to the capacity of autocracies to survive, not merely by using brute force, but also by protecting key constituencies. Hard-line Shi’ite ideologues in Iran, Alawites in Syria, Berbers in Algeria, and secularists in Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia all rely–to one degree or another –on autocracy to defend them. The regimes that rule their fractious societies are nothing less than protection rackets that use (and magnify) the fears provoked by the uncertainties of democratic politics to maintain their power.

The Arab and Iranian protection rackets are mirror images of one another. Many Arab regimes are controlled by elites that offer protection to those segments of society–the military, women’s groups, businessmen, labor unions and secular-oriented human rights organizations– that want to keep Islamists at bay.

By contrast, Iran is ruled by a coalition of clerics and security elites who are determined to repress “counter-revolutionary” secularists. Like it or not, this policy does have organized support among several million Iranians–a not insignificant political plurality. The Revolutionary Guards and radical clerics who speak or claim to speak in the name of this plurality view the demands of the Green Movement as a dire threat. Thus, if even if most Iranians who have taken to the streets want to reform rather than to dismantle the Islamic Republic, regime hard-liners view their quest for religious and political freedom as a first step towards regime collapse.

This is why the regime is not about to give up. Utterly convinced that political reform of any kind equals revolution, Iranian hard-liners have used the state media to beam one deadly message to the wider populace:”between us and the opposition stands chaos!” Like it or not, in today’s divided Iran this message may be working for the regime.

How then to undermine this protection racket in a manner that advances domestic peace-making and reconciliation? In Iran, the violent stand-off between regime and opposition–one for which the regime is primarily responsible–is undermining hopes for a compromise. But I would still predict that the most likely outcome is a negotiated solution that brings both sides back from the brink. Unfortunately, such an outcome may be years away.

In the Arab world, opportunities for negotiating a different political future remain alive in some states, while they may be dying in others. Yemen–and perhaps even Palestine–could be slipping into the near-hopeless category. But in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait, a new generation of political activists is looking for an exit from the cul-de-sac of autocracy.

The Muslim World Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace has been working to help Arab activists envision this exit strategy. Indeed, during the week of January 18-22, the MWI will hold two public events that highlight opportunities for promoting political dialogue and consensus.

The first will take place on Wednesday, January 20, when USIP joins forces with the Project on Middle East Democracy and Georgetown University’s Center for Democracy and Civil Society to host a remarkable meeting in the U.S. Congress–one that will
showcase the aspirations of a new generation of Arab political activists.

The second event will take place on the morning of Friday, January 22, when USIP will launch Pursuing Safety and Freedom: Reform and Security in the Greater Middle East. This exhaustive USIP Study Group Report offers a strategy for helping Arab states move beyond the insecurities of autocratic protection rackets.

Towards this end, our USIP Study Group Report calls for two initiatives: first, for the Obama Administration to innovate policies that encourage oppositions to forge a common vision of democratic change, and second, for the administration to use a mix private and public diplomacy to encourage regimes to undertake the substantive legal, institutional and constitutional reforms that they have long avoided. Such reforms, we argue, will not only encourage a free exchange of ideas that cuts across the ideological, sectarian and social divide: they will also promote a process of dialogue and negotiation that reduces the fears provoked by the very prospect of genuine political change. Absent this dynamic, the already vast expanse between states and societies will widen in ways that could threaten the security of states and entire regions.

It is up to the citizens of the Arab world to take the first steps along the path to a new democratic consensus. But if they take the lead (along with the risks that such leadership always entails), then surely Washington can and indeed must help by encouraging genuine political dialogues — particularly in those Arab states whose rulers assume that their geo-strategic relations with the U.S. provide a blank check for sustaining the old protection racket.

Daniel Brumberg is Co-Director of Georgetown University’s Democracy and Governance Program and Acting Director of the Muslim World Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace.

By Daniel Brumberg | 
January 13, 2010; 4:19 PM ET

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Georgetown/On Faith

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Islam and the West


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