“In my view, the opportunity to proceed to a more pluralistic society in the Middle East has been missed,” asserts Dr. Dan Schueftan, Director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa. Professor Peter Sluglett, Visiting Research Professor at MEI, disagrees. “I believe that any spontaneous and bottom-up expression of opposition to authoritarianism is a positive step forward,” he contends.
Just a year and a half ago, authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt fell, sparking a wave of protests and uprisings around the region that eventually toppled Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya and saw the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, step down. Islamist parties have enjoyed victories in both Tunisia and Egypt’s post-revolution elections, though in Egypt the military is holding fast to power.
“I am not optimistic about these post-revolutionary states,” says Schueftan. “The people are exchanging a corrupt authoritarian regime for an intolerant state that will Islamicize society and produce negative growth.” He also cites reasons of social unrest, political instability, and the preponderance of the military in politics and the economy as reasons for this regression in Arab—particularly Egyptian—society.
According to Schueftan, Egypt’s revolution has rendered it incapable of being the natural leader of what he calls the “responsible bloc,” made up of the West-leaning countries of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Jordan that minimized major violent eruptions for more than a generation. “This bloc used to be able to indirectly coordinate interests with Israel and the United States vis-à-vis Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah,” Schueftan claims. “With the overwhelming domestic problems and the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood, this kind of responsible leadership will be impossible for the foreseeable future.”
Sluglett, on the other hand, is more hopeful. “An Islamist government is not necessarily a bulwark against progress,” he says, explaining that once in power, Islamist governments are forced to become pragmatic in order to produce results and be reelected. “You see this even in Iran,” he says. “Their politics are often pretty pragmatic, merely coated with an Islamic icing.” The main challenge Sluglett foresees is not the presence of Islamist parties in government, but their relative inexperience. “They will have to learn how to negotiate with power players like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the military, as well as produce growth,” he says. He brushes off concerns about an alliance between Islamist parties and the military, citing fundamental differences in worldview and goals. Schueftan disagrees, asserting that “the most failing, oppressive, and murderous regional regimes—al-Asad’s, Saddam Hussein’s, and Ahmadinejad’s—were anti-Western and did not moderate when they came to power.”
In essence, Sluglett and Schueftan differ on the core problem facing the Arab world. Sluglett believes that the problem lies with historical and external factors, from a legacy of geostrategic realpolitik to neoliberal economic and Israeli “colonial-master” policies in the region. “The present Middle East is profoundly shaped by its tumultuous past, by colonialism and the Cold War,” he remarks. “You have dictatorial regimes long supported by the West, whose sole interest is in keeping oil supply lines open, while Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank derails hopes for a stable Middle East.”
Sluglett argues that these political problems are compounded by the economic disaster that has been brought about since the 1980s and 1990s by the rapid privatization of Arab economies. “You may see some signs of economic growth, but this masks soaring inequalities,” explains Sluglett. “Productivity has plummeted, leading to massive social dislocation.” For him, improvement will only come when the economic capacity of the Arab states are built up, the population is meaningfully educated, and Israel no longer rules the Occupied Territories.
In contrast, Schueftan believes that the center of gravity of the problems lies within. “Pluralism is an important element that is lacking,” he says, noting that “Arab societies still have a strong primordial and tribal component that makes it difficult for them to meet the challenges of the modern world.” While Schueftan concedes that there may be pockets of people who are committed to pluralism, he is convinced that it is not the mainstream ideology. “The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood received such a strong mandate is a clear sign of this non-pluralistic worldview,” he said. “Being somewhat less radical than the Salafists and using soft terminology to sell their political product does not make them moderate or willing to treat women or non-Muslims equally,” he argues. “Their intolerance is an important component of their enormous public appeal.” On the other hand, as Sluglett points out, moderate Islamist parties have long been tolerated in Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, and the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, has had decades of organizational experience; this as much as anything explains its success in rallying its supporters.
“Arab societies need to recognize their responsibility for the present reality,” Schueftan stresses. “And they must be willing to pay the price of change.” In his view, the focus on external issues is but blame shifting and excuses. “Singapore chose to work hard for success, rather than use colonialism, occupation, and neoliberal economics as excuses for failure,” Schueftan adds. Sluglett agrees, but he considers that external forces have long exercised, and continue to exercise, a baneful influence in the Arab Middle East, especially by restricting Arabs’ capacity to control their own destiny.
MEI’s Conversations Series features informal interviews with prominent individuals about current events and/or their experience and work relating to the Middle East, Asia, and the Institute.
Interviews by David Wong De-Wei.