It is still early to come to the conclusion that people power will reign in the Middle East. We have to be cautious as the oppressive power of the state should not be underestimated in this part of the world.
In the meantime, however, the people of these countries should not be deprived of international support for democratization. For a change, the West should not side with dictators in the Middle East but with the people.
For decades now the West has been trapped by analysts who advocated supporting despotic regimes in the Middle East to stop the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, even if this meant oppression, violence and poverty. This was, in fact, not the correct strategy. The ensuing accusations of Western double standards were then not unwarranted. It was obvious that after the end of the Cold War the Middle East was exempt from the wave of democratization.
The Algerian case is exemplary in this context. A democratic electoral process was stopped by the military in 1991 when it became clear that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was to form a majority in parliament. Implicit and explicit support of the West for the military intervention that resulted in chaos and the death of tens of thousands of people in Algeria is still well remembered.
Such an attitude adopted by the West constituted one of the grounds for widespread anti-Western sentiment. While democracy was applauded in every part of the world, it has been denied to the people of the Middle East. This fueled anger towards Western governments that supported suppressive regimes in the Middle East. The excuse for this unprincipled support was to stop the rise of radical political Islam.
Have Western policymakers and analysts not yet understood that suppressive and corrupt governments in the Middle East use the “threat of Islamism” as a convenient tool to secure the support of the West? With the “threat of Islamists” having become a fruitful “strategic asset” in the hands of repressive governments, it became impossible to expect from these governments that they would finish off the “threat.” The paradox for the West is evident. Oppressive and corrupt regimes in the Middle East used the “Islamist threat.” Thus, even if there was no such threat, they created one or kept such existing “threats” in order to “sell” themselves to the West.
In the wake of uprisings in the Middle East, Western governments and media should do away with this vicious circle. It is time to realize that suppression through authoritarian governments is not the way to deal with Islamic radicalism.
Second, important rethinking relates to the process and outcomes of democratization. It is not a process that merely benefits radical Islamists. The process also does not necessarily bring radical Islamists to power. It is fundamentally misleading to equate democratization with Islamization in the Middle East. What people want is a representative and accountable government. A democratic mechanism may bring the Islamists to power, but it also has the built-in mechanisms to oust them from power. It is Orientalist reductionism to assume that Muslims will blindly vote for an Islamist party, disregarding their program and performance once in power. The inclusion of Islamists in the political process is absolutely necessary to establish representative and accountable governments in the Middle East.
I think the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and others in the Middle East are capable of electing their representatives and holding them responsible for what they do and what they do not do while in government.
Whenever we talk of Middle Eastern politics, one concept is key: legitimacy or, to be more precise, the lack of legitimacy of the regimes in the Middle East. Some buy it through a rentier economy, some cover it up through ideological or nationalist sentiment and some silence the masses with oppressive apparatuses and measures. But I think it is becoming evermore difficult to sustain such regimes. Legitimacy generated through democratic participation is an absolute must.
Discontent can no longer be contained. There is a moment when the cost of oppression outweighs the cost of tolerating democratic change. The Middle East is at such a crossroads. And the international community should decide with the people of the region on what they prefer. Will they stand for the durable stability of democracies or the fragile and shaky stability of dictators?