Middle East heads for more, not less strife

Middle East heads for more, not less strife

In a recent interview with the Russian news channel RT, Mahmoud Jibril, who served as the interim prime minister of Libya for seven and a half months during the uprising against Col. Moammar Gadhafi, said somewhat ominously that he did not expect “the new Middle East to emerge before 15 to 20 years.”

By “the new Middle East,” one assumes that he means a Middle East where the democratically elected majority respects the rights of minorities, there is respect for everyone’s human rights regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion, and where the wealth of the region is distributed much more equitably among the citizenry than has been the case to date.

Current developments not only appear to confirm Jibril, but also make him sound somewhat optimistic, indicating as they do that it could take anything up to half a century for the new Middle East he hankers for to emerge. What is clear at this stage is that the “Arab Spring,” on which so many positive expectations were invested, has not spawned democracy yet, but has instead opened the “Pandora’s Box” of religious fundamentalism and sectarianism along the Sunni-Shiite fault line.

Egypt is of course the case in point. At the moment the struggle in that country is between the fundamentalist wing – which includes the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Salafis – and a military that is not only trying to cling on to its self-given privileges, but also to a more secular, if not democratic, mode of administration.

The presidential commission in that country recently banned the religious candidates for president, Khayrat al-Shater and Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a lawyer who supports an Islamic state such as Iran’s. It also banned the military’s candidate, the former head of intelligence Omar Suleiman, probably for good measure.

In addition to this, an Egyptian court recently blocked the Constitutional Assembly which was spurned by liberal and Christian groups on the grounds that it was dominated by Islamists. The Islamists in this case of course were the winners of the parliamentary elections, and therefore this move by the court does appear undemocratic at first glance.

But having dominated the Constitutional Assembly, the Islamists appeared to be more interested in consolidating their power along religious lines, rather than writing a constitution that would not only be democratic but also secular and thus represent everyone’s interests in that country. Put another way, doubts have emerged that a democratically elected Islamist government will be democratic itself if it has a firm hold on power.

How long it will take Egypt to clear this mess is not clear but what is certain is that with the Islamists flexing their political muscles in this way, the chances are that may liberals and Copts in that country will prefer an authoritarian secular administration led by the military to an authoritarian religious administration which wants to run the country based on the Shariah.

Syria, on the other hand, has, if anything, highlighted the principle sectarian division in the Middle East which represents the real fault line that exists in the region, and which will make it harder for the advent of the desired democratic environment. That environment will require a democratic and secular form of administration that is equidistant to all faiths, and there lies the rub. The problem is that the predominantly Islamic region has an allergy toward the concept of secularism, which it wrongly equates with irreligion.

Unfortunately it seems that it will take more strife for everyone in the region to realize that a democratic and secular form of administration is what will ultimately provide social stability in the Middle East. The struggle now, however, is not for such an administration but more and more one where Islamists of different shades want to avail themselves of the golden opportunity presented them by history to establish a society based on Islamic rules.

This then is what makes Mahmoud Jibril’s prediction that it could take 15 to 20 years for the new Middle East to emerge a highly optimistic one. The truth is that the Middle East is headed for more strife, not less.