The New Egypt & a New Sunni Awakening

Remember Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January 2011? That was such a heady time for Egypt and for the true believers. Tom Friedman was ecstatic, Anderson Cooper was elated and the New York Times was even more sure of its belief system. The movement that had begun in Tunisia and spread to Egypt was hailed in the global media as the Arab Spring.

This week, elation was replaced by despair. This week, Cairo reminded us of Tehran and Libya reminded us of Iraq.

Remember Tehran in 1979? The revolution against the Shah was started by college students in 1977 and backed by Iranian leftists and progressives. The American media went all out to support the student-led revolution against the oppressive, dictatorial rule of the Shah. President Carter and the State Department welcomed this movement as the entry of Iranian people into the democratic fold. Soon, the Shah was gone and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from his exile in Paris. After a couple of democratically elected governments, Iran became an Islamic Republic ruled by the Shiite Clergy and their supporters. The regime is now over 30 years old and just as determined.

That’s how the Egypt story is playing out. The young Egyptian students who dominated the 2011 Tahrir Square movement are invisible today. The mob that attacked the US Embassy in Cairo was reminiscent of the 1979 Tehran mob, mainly Islamic and anti-American. The democratically elected leader of Egypt is now from the Muslim Brotherhood. And even he is proving to be too secular for the Islamic activists. The preachers banished by Hosni Mubarak are now back in Egypt and more determined to turn Egypt into a fundamentalist Islamic state.

             (Cairo 2011 – src wikipedia)                                    (Tehran 1979 – src wikipedia)

So is the New Egypt going the way of Iran? We don’t think so, the above similarities notwithstanding. The New Egypt is following another model. 

New Egypt – the Pakistani Model*

It is hard to remember that the regime that calls itself Pakistan was created in August 1947 as a secular state by a British-educated, non-religious lawyer. Unfortunately he called it Pakistan, the Land of the Pak (Pure). History has proved that title to be a joke at best and an abomination at worst. So we shall refer to that land as Na-Pakistan, the land of not so-pure. By the way, Na-Pak is the title the Taleban use for the Pakistani Army which in turns calls the Taleban as Na-Pak.

Last year, we wrote that the demonstrations against Mubarak in Cairo reminded us of the demonstrations against Musharaaf in Islamabad. Just as the Na-Pakistani Army stepped in to coerce Musharaaf into stepping down, the Egyptian Army stepped in to coerce Mubarak into stepping down. Today, both Egypt and Na-Pakistan are ruled by democratically elected leaders.

The Na-Pakistani leaders are caught between two major forces, the Islamic fundamentalists that want Na-Pakistan to become a pure Islamic state and America.  Na-Pakistan, an economic basket case, cannot survive without billions of dollars of American funding. Also the Na-Pak leaders cannot govern if they are seen to be pro-American. The electorate is poor, deeply religious and sees America as either evil or the enemy.

This is precisely the situation in Egypt today. Just as in Na-Pakistan, the seemingly moderate Egyptian leadership knows Egypt’s survival depends on billions of dollars of American aid. Yet, it simply cannot survive if it is seen as pro-American. This is why Egyptian President Morsi allowed the demonstrators to climb the walls of the American embassy in Cairo and burn the American flag. That much to let off steam and no more. That’s how we read his decision.

America has two choices. Either leave Egypt to its own mess, or work with seemingly anti-American, somewhat moderate Islamic leadership to prevent the emergence of a radical Islamic leadership. The second is the policy America has followed in Na-Pakistan for decades. It is awful, it is expensive but it is  less worse than the alternative.

That policy makes sense because Egypt is even more vital to American interests than Na-Pakistan. Egypt is the key to the Middle East. So we shall see Egypt getting poorer and poorer, more and more conservative in its religious posture while becoming more and more dependent on American aid. But as long as the respective red lines are not crossed, the situation will remain manageable as it has remained in Na-Pakistan.

Are all “Springs” the same?

That is what the term “Arab Spring” assumed. There is a spring in which flowers bloom and optimism reigns. That spring was expected in the Middle East by the Tom Friedman-Anderson Copper cohort. They forgot the other type of spring.

We mean the Taleban Spring. When spring comes to the Afghanistan, snows melt and mountain passes open up. That is when the Taleban fighters who hibernated during winter come out to launch attacks. This is what the Arab Spring looks like now.

Tom Friedman made a key point in his February 10, 2011 article Out of Touch:

  • Humiliation is the single most powerful human emotion, and overcoming it is the second most powerful human emotion.

He was and is absolutely correct about this point. Unfortunately he turned out to be terribly wrong about the larger point he made in that Out of Touch article:

  • This [Mubarak] narrative is totally out of touch with the reality of this democracy uprising in Tahrir Square, which is all about the self-empowerment of a long-repressed people no longer willing to be afraid, no longer willing to be deprived of their freedom, and no longer willing to be humiliated by their own leaders, who told them for 30 years that they were not ready for democracy. Indeed, the Egyptian democracy movement is everything that Hosni Mubarak says it is not: homegrown, indefatigable and authentically Egyptian. Future historians will write about the large historical forces that created this movement, but it is the small stories you encounter in Tahrir Square that show why it is unstoppable.

Unfortunately for Tom Friedman, for America and for the world, the Tahrir Square movement was stopped cold. Today’s movement in the Middle East is not a Friedmanian ‘ready for democracy‘ movement. The real movement is a Sunni awakening in the Middle East and it seems unstoppable.

The Sunni Awakening

It is an awakening driven by humiliation of a once proud people, a humiliation of a warrior people who went on to convert a huge portion of the world, a humiliation of a long-repress
ed people no longer willing to be repressed or humiliated by their own leaders.

And as Tom Friedman wrote, the second most powerful emotion is overcoming that humiliation. This is why you see intensely passionate protests in the Sunni Muslim populations at the smallest sign of disrespect. You see an outpouring of hatred against America, the symbol of today’s success, the winner in today’s world, the country their own leaders kowtow to.

The Middle East is young, unemployed, poor without any means of getting wealthier and driven by the humiliation it feels. The only asset they have is their religion, a religion whose power made them  conquerors in the past. They may rage against America but their real battle is against their own leaders, the secular kind, the leaders that want them to be more like their European conquerors. Their battle is to take their societies back to their own roots, to a creed that emphasized purity and simplicity, to the way it was.

This is how a people wake up. And they are completely intolerant in the initial stages of their awakening. That is what happened in Portugal and Spain when those societies awakened from Muslim rule. Look at their history. You will see the appalling crimes against humanity committed in the name of religion.

The Sunni awakening is being led by the Salafi movement, a philosophy that preaches return to the values of the Salaf (ancestors), the original Muslims. It is a strict, puritanical philosophy that has resonance among the oppressed, the downtrodden. The Taleban demonstrated its power in Afghanistan when they defeated or coerced the warlords into accepting the Taleban rule. This week, we saw the first live demonstration of the Salafi emergence in Egypt.

America’s Options

First and foremost, we need to understand that the Sunni awakening has little to do with America, Europe, non-Muslim Asia or Africa. It is mainly an intra-Islam issue. You see that in the sheer violence of the Sunni Muslim attacks on Shia Muslims in Indonesia and Na-Pakistan.

Secondly, we must resist the temptation to get excited when a bunch of English speaking people in the Middle East start talking about democracy or loving America. At best, they are a small insignificant minority as we saw in Cairo in 2011 or in Tehran in 2009. At the same time, we must resist the impulse to see an Islamic Jihadi war against America in every protest or conflict.

Above all, we must resist the temptation to apologize for any perceived or real American actions. History shows that it is far better to be respected than loved. And showing any sign that seems like weakness would embolden the Salafis. The America that stands firm for and on its principles is actually respected by the same people who rant and protest against America. This may be why in several Arab countries, America is viewed less favorably after four years of Obama than in last year of the Bush administration**.

In our opinion, the emerging Sunni-Shia conflict, the continuing Salafi conflict against more moderate Sunnis calls for a shrewd realpolitik that seeks to minimize damage to American interests:

  • Such realpolitik might suggest working towards a quiet detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Why? Because the Salafis cannot win unless they overturn existing regimes. The two most stable regimes in the Middle East are Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran, the predominant Shia power, is enemy No. 1 for Salafis. And Saudi Arabia is the ultimate prize for the Salafis in their war against existing regimes. A Saudi-Iran detente against the common Salafi threat could go a long way towards  stabilizing the other regimes in the Middle East. That detente would automatically create a solution to the mess in Syria.
  • This detente, essentially tactical in nature, can be and must be sought without compromising America’s strategic refusal to allow a “nuclear” Iran.
  • Secondly, realpolitik might teach us to accept dictators as necessary evils as long as they favor American interests and if it is done in a hands-off manner without getting in virtual bed with them.

This is a tall order because the tenor in today’s America is moral and puritanical on both sides of the political spectrum. Tall order or not, smart realpolitik in the Middle East is the need of the day.

* We refer to our article titled The New Egypt – A Russian, Pakistani, Iranian, a Neo Turko-Egyptian Model?. It was published on January 29, 2011.
** Our source for this fact is an article in the Foreign Policy Magazine

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