A Gallup report suggests the west should change its view that authoritarian regimes are necessary to keep Islamism in check in the Arab world. Photograph: Khalil Hamra/AP
Sunday, September 18, 2011
The West Has A Chance To Create A New Narrative With The Arab World
Upheaval in the Middle East offers the US and EU an opportunity to change their failed approach to the region
By John Esposito
The current transformation in the Arab world offers new opportunities for rebuilding Arab-west relations. The challenge for American and EU policymakers is to construct a new framework to replace a failed paradigm that was based on support for authoritarian regimes and "democratic exceptionalism" in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
They must move beyond policies that equated protection of their national interests with the stability of regimes and were driven more by fear of the unknown than support for western principles of self-determination, democracy and human rights. This policy, while attractive to authoritarian allies and their entrenched elites, fed anti-Americanism and anti-westernism, fears of western intervention, invasion, occupation and dependency.
Gallup's report, Egypt from Tahrir to Transition, offers important insights for Arab-west relations, discrediting the old conventional wisdom that authoritarian regimes are a necessary bulwark against the triumph of Islamists, "other Irans" and imposition of Islamic states.
The Gallup report underscores the need for a new narrative and the extent to which a history of influencing or intervening in Arab politics has backfired and sown the seeds of distrust. Two-thirds of Egyptians surveyed think the US will try to interfere in Egypt's political future as opposed to letting the people of the country decide alone. A similar number disagree that the US is serious about encouraging democratic systems of government in their region.
Thus, Egyptians, especially those who most admire America's democratic principles, want to forge their political future independently. Almost 90% of Egyptians who see the US as a political model for their country oppose US aid to political groups in their country. Perhaps as a result, 52% of Egyptians oppose accepting economic aid as a whole – 43% among those who believe Egypt should look to the US model of democracy.
As the recent Zogby International poll for the Arab American Institute reported, far from seeing the US as a leader, Arab countries surveyed viewed US "interference in the Arab world" as the greatest obstacle to Middle East peace and security (61%), almost tied with the continued occupation of Palestinian lands (60%).
What about both Arab autocrats and western governments' long-held fears of popular support for "other Irans"? The uprisings have revealed a broad pro-democracy movement that is not driven by a single ideology or by religious extremists. What has occurred is not an attempt at an Islamist takeover but a broad-based call for reforms.
Thus, for example, though the overwhelming number of Egyptians affirm the importance of Islam in their lives, they have virtually no interest (1%) in modelling their political system on Iran's Islamic Republic or any theocracy. Most Egyptians (69%) think religious leaders should be limited to an advisory role to government authorities.
So too, mainstream Islamists are part of a diverse generation of Arab youth and other reformers who are united in the desire to topple entrenched autocrats and establish more democratic governments. Responding to the political realities of their societies in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and other Arab countries, they have become part of the broader landscape. They reject an extremist vision of imposing an Islamic state and have embraced a democratic electoral process and political pluralism.
Moreover, contrary to the equating of all Islamists with anti-Americanism, the Gallup survey reported that Muslim Brotherhood supporters are slightly more likely (25%) than the general public (18%) to approve of the leadership of the United States.
More populist Arab governments will be more independent and critical in their approach to Israel. While steadfastly assuring Israel's security, the US and the EU need to let Binyamin Netanyahu feel Israel's growing isolation in the international community. The US and EU response to Netanyahu and Israel's obstructionism and flouting of democracy and human rights are critical to their credibility and relations with new emerging governments.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 18/09/2011- Professor John L Esposito is founding director of the centre for Muslim-Christian understanding at Georgetown University, an advisory board member of the British Council's Our Shared Future project and a UN global expert