Democratic Converts in Borrowed Array


Euphoria is back. Democracy, it appears, is about to experience a late birth in our region. The Berlin Wall of the Arabs has fallen, and all will shortly be transformed. But the new and emerging political language in the Middle East contains the potential for manipulation by forces with a quite different agenda from that of the true reformers in the Arab world. Israel would do well to pay close attention – both to what is being said and to who is saying it.


A strange and strangely familiar bunch, the latest converts to democracy. Walid Jumblatt, for example, of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, who declares that he knew, when witnessing the Iraqi elections of January 30, that “it was the start of a new Arab world.” Lauding the push for reform in Lebanon, Mr. Jumblatt notes that it started “because of the American invasion of Iraq.” He goes on to scold himself for his former cynicism, of which he has now been cured. Is this the same Jumblatt who, a little more than a year ago, declared that the United States is run by an evil “axis of oil and Jews” and referred to Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy as a “filthy son of a harlot of Zion?” Apparently so.


In another corner, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who after a quarter of a century in power, has now decided to allow opposition candidates to run against him (though not, apparently, to campaign freely while doing so.) And closer to home, of course, Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, with his own indigenous democratic system, which includes a place, he told Time magazine this week, for the well-known Jeffersonians of the Hamas movement.


We are encouraged not to be cynical. And it is certainly not my contention that certain regions of the world must remain forever mysteriously inaccessible to democracy. At the same time, a healthy dose of skepticism is unavoidable regarding some of the new enthusiasts. Because all this is not without precedent. It is no longer controversial to maintain that the old ideas of Arab nationalism, and the corrupt, sclerotic political structures they have produced, bear the primary responsibility for the stagnation of the region in general, and the intractability of the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular. But it is interesting to note that one of the secrets of the survival of this discredited idea and its adherents is their ability to clothe themselves in borrowed array when the political climate demands it.


A glance at history confirms this. One need not go as far back as those young pro-German activists of the Young Egypt movement, miraculously transformed into champions of pro-Soviet anti-colonialism in their later incarnation as Egyptian Free Officers. More recent examples are at hand. Think, for example, of the right-wing Arab nationalist George Habash, who reemerged after 1967 as the leading mouthpiece for the pro-Soviet position among the Palestinians. Or even the former Muslim Brother Yasser Arafat, who also tried on the fashionable pose of Third World radicalism in the 1970s, before exchanging it for the equally unlikely role of conflict resolver in the 1990s.


What all these transformations had in common was one simple fact: that they were not transformations at all. Rather, allegiance to the same basic, authoritarian orientation remained throughout: Overheated nationalism and chauvinism, hostility to independent institutions – and, centrally, hatred of Israel as the endlessly returned to, endlessly warmed-over centerpiece of the whole construct – were the inner core, around which various other costumes were fitted.


It was these ideas, the stagnant systems they produced, and the militant Islamism that arose to fill the vacuum left by their failures, which bear the primary responsibility for the absence of regional progress and conflict resolution. The ability of some of their adherents to learn the political language of the moment should surprise no one. It is in the pattern of the past.


As far as Israel is concerned, however, this mastery of successive political languages on the part of its adversaries should be a matter for concern. Israel tends to perform well on the battlefield, and less well in the diplomatic maneuvers that follow armed conflict. The performance of the security forces, and the public, over the last four years of strife are generally acknowledged to have been impressive. In his recent interview with Time, Palestinian Authority Chairman Abbas, apart from declaring his allegiance to democracy, also found space to blame Israel and its security fence for the recent terror bombing in Tel Aviv.


He also reiterated his view of Hamas as a legitimate part of the Palestinian political map and expressed his desire for rapid progress to final-status negotiations. He has expressed nothing of substance to suggest that his views regarding final status differ from those of earlier Palestinian leaders. In form, however, he differs considerably, and fluently repeating the phrases of the moment, he is building up the legitimacy he will need to produce the eventual external pressure on Israel, which is his aim.


Meanwhile, in another world, the militants of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, untroubled by the security forces of Mahmoud Abbas, berate their leader for what they already regard as his excessive concessions to Israel. The contradiction is a basic one. As the region has learned in the past, words and reality, if not brought into some harmony with one another, will eventually collide head-on, with unforeseen results.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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