The new Arab revolt

What if democracy brings Islamist government? And other key questions.

One of my favourite lines from David Gardner's Last Chance: the Middle East in the Balance is the following: "Liberals tend to be coteries who like whisky and the west but the masses incline towards men in beards" – or "men in turbans", as Gardner, now the FT's international affairs editor, puts it elsewhere in the book.

This has been the dilemma at the heart of western attitudes towards the Middle East for decades now. Should we support friendly autocrats who oversaw regimes with secular veneers or condemn their repression and give our backing to pro-democracy groups? That we have done the former is to a large extent because our governments have feared the consequences of the dictators' departure. Whisky-drinking liberals are small elites that are unlikely to be elected. Men in turbans, however, are popular . . . but we don't like the idea of dealing with any more of them than we have to.

It is unclear what a democratic, post-Mubarak Egypt might look like (Tunisia, where secularism is entrenched and the Islamist opposition insignificant, is no guide). Nor can we be certain of the stripe of government that would be elected in other Arab states that were granted the luxury of a free vote.

But it is worth asking a few questions about the possible results, both in Egypt and in any other states in the Middle East that may follow suit.

1. If we – by which I mean the governments of Europe and North America – come out in favour of popular uprisings that sweep away dictators, how do we justify our past (indeed, our very recent) support for autocrats such as Mubarak?

2. If we are in favour of democracy in Tunisia and Egypt, how does this fit with our continuing friendly relations with the absolute monarchies of the Gulf?

3. We say that we wish the voices of the people to be heard. But will we want to listen to what they say? Or does this only apply if Egypt, say, elects an internationally respected moderate, such as Mohamed ElBaradei? (And already some are warning about him – see this Jerusalem Post article.)

4. If we say that only a democratic vote confers legitimacy on a government, why did the US and the EU refuse to recognise Hamas's election victory in 2006?

5. How will we deal with, and how will we view, the likes of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi? Condemned as a "preacher of hate", he was not allowed into the UK in 2008. On the other hand, he has been condemned by jihadist groups for denouncing the 9/11 attacks and al-Qaeda. Foreign Policy magazine and others regularly refer to him as "probably the single most influential Sunni Islamist figure in the Arab world".

He has turned down the position of Supreme Guide to the Muslim Brotherhood at least once. Figures such as al-Qaradawi will have enormous importance in Arab democracies. Will we engage with them – or will we continue to ban them from our countries?

It may be that, contrary to the opinion of David Gardner and many other long-time observers of the Middle East, liberals turn out not to be just small coteries, but to have much wider appeal. If so – and it sounds like wishful thinking to me – they'd better keep quiet about the whisky-drinking.

If, however, the democratic transitions that we are now so delighted to see end up bringing Islamist-leaning governments to power, how will we react? At the very least, such administrations are not the most naturally ardent defenders of western notions of sexual freedom and equality. Will our first act be to castigate them for that?

In the light of ongoing developments, my recent posting on a new book on the Muslim Brotherhood was more timely than I could have realised. My series last summer on Rethinking Islamism is also relevant. I am aware – how could I not have been! – that it proved distinctly unpopular with many readers. But here is my problem with some of the comments. I closed Rethinking Islamism IV last June by quoting the highly regarded scholar Olivier Roy:

If democratisation means more nationalism and more sharia, this is far from what the western promoters of democratisation envisaged. But this problem must be faced head-on by saying: there is no way not to engage the Islamists. There is no alternative. We in the west have to make a choice between [Turkey's Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and the Taliban. And if we don't choose Erdoğan, we'll get the Taliban.

The first comment after the piece was published began: "I totally reject both Erdogan and Taliban . . . It is outright insane to wish to dally with Islamists to any degree."

But this is not about "wishing" to "dally" with anyone. This is about the possible consequences of democracy in the region, which on any reasonable analysis includes the likelihood of Islamist-leaning governments coming to power. Are we ready to deal with them, to be open to dialogue and understanding? Or will our minds be so clouded by fear of the word "Islamist" that we cannot even recognise Turkey's AKP government as a moderate administration with which we should be glad to do business?

If so, it will be us who put a dampener on the euphoria accompanying the removal of the tyrants. Not to mention that we'll have shown that "democracy" to us means the freedom to choose your own government – so long as we approve of it.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The most terrifying thing about Donald Trump's speech? What he didn't say

No politician uses official speeches to put across their most controversial ideas. But Donald Trump's are not hard to find. 

As Donald Trump took the podium on a cold Washington day to deliver his inauguration speech, the world held its breath. Viewers hunched over televisions or internet streaming services watched Trump mouth “thank you” to the camera, no doubt wondering how he could possibly live up to his deranged late-night Twitter persona. In newsrooms across America, reporters unsure when they might next get access to a president who seems to delight in denying them the right to ask questions got ready to parse his words for any clue as to what was to come. Some, deciding they couldn’t bear to watch, studiously busied themselves with other things.

But when the moment came, Trump’s speech was uncharacteristically professional – at least compared to his previous performances. The fractured, repetitive grammar that marks many of his off-the-cuff statements was missing, and so, too, were most of his most controversial policy ideas.

Trump told the crowd that his presidency would “determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come” before expressing his gratefulness to President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for their “gracious aid” during the transition. “They have been magnificent," Trump said, before leading applause of thanks from the crowd.

If this opening was innocent enough, however, it all changed in the next breath. The new president moved quickly to the “historic movement”, “the likes of which the world has never seen before”, that elected him President. Following the small-state rhetoric of his campaign, Trump promised to take power from the “establishment” and restore it to the American people. “This moment," he told them, “Is your moment. It belongs to you.”

A good deal of the speech was given over to re-iterating his nationalist positions while also making repeated references to the key issues – “Islamic terrorism” and families – that remain points of commonality within the fractured Republican GOP.

The loss of business to overseas producers was blamed for “destroying our jobs”. “Protection," Trump said, “Will lead to great strength." He promised to end what he called the “American carnage” caused by drugs and crime.

“From this day forward," Trump said, “It’s going to be only America first."

There was plenty in the speech, then, that should worry viewers, particularly if you read Trump’s promises to make America “unstoppable” so it can “win” again in light of his recent tweets about China

But it was the things Trump didn't mention that should worry us most. Trump, we know, doesn’t use official channels to communicate his most troubling ideas. From bizarre television interviews to his upsetting and offensive rallies and, of course, the infamous tweets, the new President is inclined to fling his thoughts into the world as and when he sees fit, not on the occasions when he’s required to address the nation (see, also, his anodyne acceptance speech).

It’s important to remember that Trump’s administration wins when it makes itself seem as innocent as possible. During the speech, I was reminded of my colleague Helen Lewis’ recent thoughts on the “gaslighter-in-chief”, reflecting on Trump’s lying claim that he never mocked a disabled reporter. “Now we can see," she wrote, “A false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet."

Saying things that are untrue isn’t the only way of lying – it is also possible to lie by omission.

There has been much discussion as to whether Trump will soften after he becomes president. All the things this speech did not mention were designed to keep us guessing about many of the President’s most controversial promises.

Trump did not mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, nor the wall he insists he will erect between America and Mexico (which he maintains the latter will pay for). He maintained a polite coolness towards the former President and avoiding any discussion of alleged cuts to anti-domestic violence programs and abortion regulations. Why? Trump wanted to leave viewers unsure as to whether he actually intends to carry through on his election rhetoric.

To understand what Trump is capable of, therefore, it is best not to look to his speeches on a global stage, but to the promises he makes to his allies. So when the President’s personal website still insists he will build a wall, end catch-and-release, suspend immigration from “terror-prone regions” “where adequate screening cannot occur”; when, despite saying he understands only 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood services relate to abortion and that “millions” of women are helped by their cancer screening, he plans to defund Planned Parenthood; when the president says he will remove gun-free zones around schools “on his first day” - believe him.  

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland