Why I'm Optimistic About the Future of the Middle East
by RYAN MAURO
December 12, 2011
With all the hair-raising news coming out of the Middle East, from Iran’s nuclear advances to the Islamist landslide in Egypt’s first round of elections, it’s time for some holiday cheer. Yes, the short-term outlook is bleak, but there is reason to be optimistic about the future of the region.
In the Tunisian and Moroccan elections, the headlines blared that the Islamist parties got the most votes. It was true, but the headlines didn’t tell the whole story. The Islamist Ennahda Party won 41% of the vote in Tunisia, but that means that 60% voted against it. The non-Islamist vote was split. In Morocco, the Islamists won with 107 seats, but there are 395 seats in parliament. The non-Islamists had actually won a huge majority of the vote.
The results in Egypt are terrifying, as the Islamists got about 65% of the vote in the first round of elections, with the Salafist puritans getting about one-quarter. A few things must be pointed out. Ultimate authority rests with the ruling military council that has vowed to prevent “another Khomeini” from arising. The secularists had a steep organizational disadvantage, but their disadvantages will lessen over time. About 60% of Egyptians favor preserving the peace treaty with Israel as long as a Palestinian state is established. About 57% and 44% disapprove of Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. In the presidential race, the secular nationalist Amr Moussa, is the clear frontrunner.
The Islamist victory in Egypt was an exception to the norm. As Amer Taheri wrote before the election, “Wherever there have been free elections in a Muslim-majority country, Islamist parties, even those hiding their true colors, have never managed to win an outright majority.” Hamas won the Palestinian elections with a plurality of about 44%.
I reviewed this trend in a 2009 article I wrote titled, "A Moderate Muslim Revolution." That year, Hezbollah lost the elections in Lebanon. Although Hezbollah now controls the government, the terrorist group has lost popularity because of its support for Bashar Assad in Syria and the U.N. indictment of the group for killing the popular former prime minister. In May 2009, the Islamists were defeated in Kuwait’s elections and Indonesia’s ruling secular party won a landslide victory. In late 2008, the Islamists in Bangladesh were trounced. In February 2008, the Islamists were defeated in Pakistan’s elections.
In Iraq’s parliamentary elections in 2010, the cross-sectarian bloc led by Iyad Allawi, a pro-American secular Shiite hated by Iran, got the most votes. The parties most closely tied to Iran were massacred despite the strong showings they had in earlier contests. Only 18% of Iraq’s Shiites look kindly upon Iranian influence, even though Iran’s government is from the same branch of Islam.
In Iran, the regime has fractured with Ahmadinejad and Khamenei at each other's throats. The population is craving change and the regime is growing weaker by the day. A top Iranian official even had to instruct clerics to focus less on politics and more on stopping the dramatic decline in mosque attendance. The Syrian regime is under immense pressure because of sanctions, protests and the rising numbers of the Free Syria Army. The leader of the Syrian National Council, the opposition umbrella, promises to sever Syria’s alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas if Assad is overthrown. In Syria, the Islamists are at a significant demographic disadvantage and are expected to only have 20-25% support.
In Libya, the Islamists are doing well, but the secularists are fighting on and won a power struggle to choose the next prime minister. The military chiefs say they are not picking leaders that count “how many times he prays each day.” There is even reason for hope in Saudi Arabia. About 40% view the U.S. favorably and only 15% viewed Bin Laden favorably in a December 2007 survey. More Saudis dislike Hamas and Hezbollah than don’t. These sentiments have probably grown stronger since that poll. And, as the younger generation ages, there will be a major power struggle as they demand liberal reforms.
At the same time, there are severe strains in key anti-American alliances. In Syria, Iran is backing Bashar Assad, while the Muslim Brotherhood is backing the opposition. Hamas is now leaving Syria, and Iran is threatening to end all support for the terrorist group in retaliation. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan clashed with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood recently. And Turkey, which was growing closer to Iran and Syria, is now leading the charge against Bashar Assad.
In areas where Islamists do come in control, the population quickly comes to regret it. The classic case is Iran, but this was also seen in Afghanistan under the Taliban and in areas of Pakistan that have fallen under extremist domination. In Iraq, Al-Qaeda’s influence in the Sunni areas sparked the Anbar Awakening where the tribes fought to rid the country of the terrorist group. Hamas is now viewed negatively by 56% of the people in the Gaza Strip. Amazingly, 46% blame Hamas and Israel equally for their problems and 30% of Palestinians as a whole favor a permanent, two-state solution. Hamas is actually more popular in the West Bank, where it doesn’t govern, than in Gaza.
There is much talk about reform within Islam. This will come incrementally and won’t happen overnight. There is a slow-moving trend towards modernity. Dr. Tawfik Hamid, a former Islamist, made note of a very important but overlooked development. In January, he wrote that 25 scholars, including some from al-Azhar University, are arguing in favor of reviving Islam’s doctrine of Ijtihad, which means revaluating the teachings of the religion. According to Dr. Hamid, the scholars listed 22 points for review, including jihad, women’s rights, separation of mosque and state and relations with the non-Muslim world. That is huge.
There are plenty of reasons to be worried about the Middle East, but there are scattered glimmers of light fighting to shine through the darkness.