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Commentary: 1; 5,000; 500,000

by on January 27, 2014 10:10 AM

If you’re confused about all the turmoil in the Arab world and asking how the United States should respond, I find it useful to consider three questions:

1) Why is it that the Arab awakening country where the U.S. has had the least involvement, Tunisia, is where the most progress is being made toward building a consensual democracy? 2) Why are the three most important numbers to keep in mind when thinking about the Arab world today 1, 5,000 and 500,000? 3) Why does Egypt’s strongman, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, have so many medals on his chest when he’s too young to have fought in any of Egypt’s big wars, and why might that be a worrying sign?

Let’s start with Tunisia, where the country’s National Constituent Assembly has forged a new constitution that, as The New York Times reported, “is a carefully worded blend of ideas that has won the support of both Ennahda, the Islamist party… and the secular opposition.” It is surely one of the most liberal and inclusive constitutions in the Arab world. It took three years of political struggles for the Tunisians to get there, and the whole thing could still blow up at any time, but it is an achievement that Tunisians basically did on their own. What’s the secret?

Answer: The main religious and secular forces in Tunisia, after coming close to civil war, finally agreed to the sine qua non for the success of any Arab democracy movement — “No victor, no vanquished.” Whether you’re talking Shiites, Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, tribes, Islamists or secular generals, in these pluralistic Arab states, unless all the key parties accept the principle that power will be shared and rotated, there is no chance any of these awakenings will make a stable transition from autocracy to more consensual politics.

But Tunisians had another advantage, says Craig Charney, a veteran pollster in South Africa and the Middle East. Tunisia “already had strong civil society institutions” — like the General Labor Union, the National Business Federation, the Tunisian Bar Association and the Tunisian Human Rights League. These institutions, explained Charney, “were able to play a nonpartisan moderating role between the different political factions.” And, unlike Egypt, Tunisia also did not have a politicized military with deep roots in the economy that had incentives to meddle in the political arena. Syria, Libya and Iraq had no real civil society institutions at all.

And that leads to those numbers. When people in a country are ready to live together, you just need one Nelson Mandela — a unifying leader — to galvanize the political system to work productively. When people are not ready to live together but are ready to live apart — as in Bosnia or Lebanon after years of civil war — you just need 5,000 peacekeepers to police the de facto or de jure lines of partition. But when people are not ready to live together or apart — because of a lack of trust, lack of exhaustion or one or all parties still think they can have it all — then you probably need 500,000 peacekeepers to come in, remove the dictator, eliminate the most extreme elements on all sides, and protect the center for a long time while it forges a new citizenship and party system able to share power. Even then, failure is a real option.

In short, what ails the Arab world is something we alone can’t fix: an inability to manage pluralism in a democratic way. We can stop the worst of it as long as we are there (see: Iraq). But only they can make the best of it — and make it self-sustaining. President Bashar Assad of Syria is a monster. But he can only be removed in a way that won’t bring more chaos if the Syrian opposition can demonstrate on the ground that it not only believes in pluralism, but has the will and ability to enforce it. Otherwise, the Syrian minorities gathered around Assad will not abandon him. Everyone urging President Barack Obama to intervene in Syria needs to keep all this in mind.

As for Egypt, I had no sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood leaders. I wish they had been voted out of office, but I understood why so many Egyptians wanted the army to get rid of them. Yet, when the army also decided to arrest decent, nonviolent, civil society youth leaders — like Ahmed Maher — for simply protesting, and eliminated the Muslim Brotherhood from Egyptian political life, not even allowing the Brotherhood to play by new restrictive rules, it felt like a return to the old model of relying on a military strongman and producing stability through suppression, not inclusion.

I hope I’m wrong, but I worry. Wikipedia has a list of el-Sissi’s medals. They include things like the Silver Jubilee of October (1973) War Medal and the Golden Jubilee of the 23rd of July (1953) Revolution. They fall into the category of looking for dignity in all the wrong places — celebrating Egypt’s past, not winning its future. When el-Sissi announces that the medals he will henceforth seek are for defeating Egypt’s real enemies — like wiping out female illiteracy — or for building more science and technology high schools or for building a truly inclusive political system, I’ll become a fan. And the day he starts pinning medals on other Egyptians for their leadership in those same causes, Egypt will be a strong nation that won’t need a strongman.



Thomas Friedman writes a column for the New York Times.
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